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Latino Voters Help Push Immigration Changes Forward


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

It's that rare week in politics when Republicans and Democrats have been advocating roughly the same thing.

INSKEEP: Some - though by no means all - GOP leaders insist it's time to back changes in immigration laws. Republican Senator Jeff Flake argued on this program yesterday, for example, that reform was morally right and also politically necessary for his party.

MONTAGNE: In Nevada, President Obama argued that now is the time for Congress to approve a change.

As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, the action comes after Latinos turned out in large numbers to help re-elect the president.


SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: When Latino activists chanted in Spanish yes, we can during the president's speech, you got the sense they meant it. Immigration reform has gone from wishful thinking to a genuine prospect, as President Obama described a growing consensus that it's time to fix the system.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: A call for action can now be heard coming from all across America. I'm here today because the time has come for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform. The time has come.

HORSLEY: That was a top priority for the largely Latino Service Workers Union, which campaigned aggressively for the president's re-election. Union leader Eliseo Medina says this is a moment he's been waiting years for.

ELISEO MEDINA: The fact that the Republican senators have indicated that they want to work together to get immigration reform done, I think this is a good moment for immigrants. I think this is a good moment for America.

DAVID DAMORE: That's what elections can do. They can send a pretty strong message to one party when you're losing the fastest-growing demographic in a number of really important key swing states.

HORSLEY: Political scientist David Damore of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas says the drubbing that Republicans took from Latino voters last fall has convinced some in the party they'll never be nationally competitive until they change their tune on immigration.

This week, four Republican senators teamed up with Democrats to release their own plan for an overhaul. The president's plan presented yesterday is broadly similar. It includes strict border control, stronger workplace enforcement and steps to make it easier for high-skilled immigrants to get visas.

The most contentious part of both plans is a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants who are already in the country illegally.


OBAMA: Now, we all agree that these men and women should have to earn their way to citizenship. But for comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship.

HORSLEY: Obama says he welcomes the Senate effort, but warns if lawmakers don't move forward in a timely manner, he'll draft his own immigration bill. He also cautioned the upcoming debate is likely to be emotional.


OBAMA: It's easy sometimes for the discussion to take on a feeling of us-versus-them. And when that happens, a lot of folks forget that most of us used to be them.

HORSLEY: The president spoke warmly about generations of immigrants who often braved hardship to help build this country - in his words - brick-by-brick.

In a parking lot of a Home Depot store down the street from the high school where the president spoke, Jose Hoya(ph) is looking for work and eager to do his part in building the country. Hoya came to the U.S. from El Salvador more than 20 years ago.

JOSE HOYA: (Foreign language spoken)

HORSLEY: Legalizing people without papers would be good for the whole country, Hoya says. He's not eligible to vote. But immigration activist Angelica Salas says many who did vote last fall felt alienated by what they saw as harsh rhetoric towards illegal immigrants from the GOP.

ANGELICA SALAS: But I also wanted to send a message to the Republican Party: Don't think that all these voters cannot one day cast a vote for you. And I think that if they support immigration reform, many of these young people will then feel like there's more of an opportunity to choose either party.

HORSLEY: Any overhaul still faces big challenges in the House, where many Republican lawmakers represent districts that are still overwhelmingly white. They may not feel the same demographic urgency that their Senate colleagues do. Union leader Medina says no one is claiming victory yet.

MEDINA: Republicans and Democrats have a choice to make: Are they going to do the right thing, or are they going to stand in the way of what the American people want? And depending on how they act, we will act accordingly in the election of 2014.

HORSLEY: Medina says immigration activists will be visiting lawmakers this spring to keep the pressure on. He hopes to see a bill passed within six months.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.