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Dawidziak: GOP finally paying attention to immigration reform

Today's Hispanic immigrants will give their support to

Today's Hispanic immigrants will give their support to the party who puts out the welcome mat, not the one who shuts the door in their faces. Credit: Tribune Media Services / Donna Grethen

Suddenly it seems almost everybody wants to jump on the immigration reform train. For the local and national groups that have been advocating this issue for years, the shift is as humorous as it is welcome. They must be asking, why now? If immigration reform is good politics now, why wasn't it six months ago? The tipping point, obviously, was November's national election.

Fair or not, being against immigration reform can easily be viewed as being anti-Hispanic -- an untenable position for either major party. Not only is the Hispanic population growing, but so is its political clout. The Republican Party can no longer kick the can down the road -- it's run out of road. In 2004, John Kerry got a mere 53 percent of the Latino vote while last year, Barack Obama took 71 percent. The percentage of votes cast by Latinos in that time increased from 8 percent to 10 percent.

The increased percentages of Hispanic voters in key swing states such as Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada are going to make those electoral votes increasingly harder to win for a party on the wrong side of this issue. In these battleground states -- all of which Romney lost -- the Latino vote went overwhelmingly to Obama. It makes you wonder if the Republicans had pushed for immigration reform a year ago, if the outcome might have been different.

But better late than never. The GOP now understands that if it wants to have a shot at the White House in 2016 and beyond, it needs an image makeover among Hispanic voters. What is smart politics today is essential politics tomorrow.

This is just as true here on Long Island as it is nationally. While advocacy groups such as the Long Island Immigrant Alliance and Long Island Wins have been laboring long and hard to raise local awareness of how immigration reform would be good for the local economy, they have correctly recognized that any solution must come on a federal level. Seeing the president, the Senate and the House pushing each other out of the way to get ahead on the issue last week must be gratifying. Whether the sudden enthusiasm spreads to our local level remains to be seen. Last year, when these groups organized the Long Island Regional Immigration Summit, the only non-Hispanic elected officials from either party to show up were New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, who was the keynote speaker, and Patchogue Village Mayor Paul V. Pontieri Jr.

Long Island politicians from both sides of the aisle would be wise to pay greater attention. While census figures put the Nassau-Suffolk Latino population at 16 percent, they make up only about 8 percent of the voters. That means that not only is the percentage of the Hispanic population growing -- it's up 56 percent since 1990 -- but the potential impact at the voting booth could grow dramatically and immediately. As Jesse Garcia, the first Hispanic-American chairman of the Brookhaven Republican Party, put it in a statement last spring, "If we are going to grow as a party, it's incumbent to engage in a comprehensive, good-faith outreach into the Latin community." He added that he is "making this a priority here locally despite the challenges created by the national organization."

One of the great strengths of America is that we have welcomed and assimilated diverse ethnic groups. The same can be true for political parties. A hundred years ago in Boston, Democratic ward bosses met Irish immigrants coming off the boats and recruited them into their party. This helped build one of the strongest political machines in the country.

Today's Hispanic immigrants will give their support to the party that puts out the welcome mat, not the one that shuts the door in their faces. Now that Republicans are pushing for reform, too, it's "game on."

Michael Dawidziak is a political consultant and pollster.