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As Republicans rethink their immigration stances, President Obama comes to Vegas to push reform

My, what a difference an election makes.

A year ago, Republican candidates for president were toeing the same harsh line against undocumented immigrants that had boosted the fortunes of Tea Party conservatives in the 2010 congressional elections. Mitt Romney, the eventual Republican nominee for president, was slamming fellow candidates as soft on illegal immigration, for supporting education for the children of immigrants, for allowing “anchor babies” and supporting “amnesty.”

Groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (identified as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center) and Numbers USA were welcomed in conservative circles as they argued for harsh measures against immigration generally, and specifically against Hispanic or Latino immigrants — legal or not.

Today, Republicans from the top of the party on down are lining up to show their sensitivity to immigrants and their love for Hispanic and Latino voters. The Nevada Republican Party Executive Committee voted 7-1 last week to endorse a “path to citizenship” for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

“Republicans must become more inclusive, reflecting our desire to secure a better life for all Americans, and equally important, for our children,” Nevada GOP Chairman Michael McDonald said in a statement reported by the Review-Journal.

And as pundits everywhere have noted, “Republicans must become more inclusive” if they hope to win national elections as the demographics of America continue to change.

The Nevada GOP may be ahead of the curve. The Hill, a daily paper focusing on Congress, said that the Nevada party was the first Republican state group to endorse the path for citizenship.

Along with similar calls from Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Hispanic Republican, a host of national Republican media stars and grown-up politicians appear to be turning years of GOP hostility to immigration reform upside down. Among those who have endorsed immigration reform are Fox News commentators Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Charles Krauthammer.

And GOP standard-bearers in the Senate — Marco Rubio, John McCain and Lindsay Graham — joined Democrats in the Senate to roll out proposed reforms that would also include a path to citizenship.

As the Nevada Republicans help put the state squarely in the center of the debate, President Obama chose Las Vegas last week to announce his push for comprehensive reform of immigration laws. His venue was Del Sol High School, before a crowd packed with leadership and members from labor, religious and progressive organizations.

Obama, as expected, focused on his proposals to change the existing — and according to nearly every perspective, almost completely dysfunctional — body of immigration law in three ways: strengthen existing enforcement laws, especially with respect to the hiring of undocumented immigrants; provide a path to citizenship; and overhaul an antiquated immigration system that still divides families.

The 20-minute address had the feel of a campaign rally. The crowds cheered when newly elected congressional representatives Steven Horsford and Dina Titus entered the gym, even louder when Obama entered, and again when the president referenced the “dreamers,” undocumented young men and women who were brought here by their parents, and who now can get legal residency because of an executive order from the president.

Obama also tipped his hat to the senators who proposed similar legislation. The Senate proposal, which hits the same points as Obama’s, is already getting a cool reception from congressional conservatives, who blast as “amnesty” any proposal that provides a potential for citizenship.

But Obama’s echo of the Senate proposal was warmly greeted in Las Vegas, which is representative of the country’s changing demographics. Nearly 30 percent of Clark County’s population is of Latino or Hispanic heritage, up from 22 percent in 2000, according to the Census. Nationally, 18 percent of American residents were of Latino or Hispanic heritage in 2011, compared to 12.5 percent in Census 2000. In his 2012 victory in Nevada, Obama won 71 percent of the Latino vote.

Nonetheless, Obama acknowledged the challenge of passing comprehensive reform. “I know that some issues will be harder to lift than others,” he said. “Some debates will be more contentious. That’s to be expected. But the reason I came here today is because of a challenge where the differences are dwindling; where a broad consensus is emerging; and where a call for action can now be heard coming from all across America.”

The crowd responded — as they had at campaign rallies in 2008 and 2012 — by chanting “Si, se puede!” (Yes, we can!)

Among those packing the gym was Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers, who brought about 30 union members, mostly from California’s Central Valley. Immigrants from Mexico have always had a presence in the West, as temporary workers or as permanent residents. (Farms can hire Mexican visiting workers on a temporary basis if there are not adequate local applicants.)

“The reality is that immigrants make a huge contribution to our society and our economy, regardless of the job,” Rodriguez said.

Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the powerhouse national Service Employees International Union, flew out from Washington, D.C., to catch the president’s speech. “There was a very clear message, both to the Congress and to the public: People want a solution. … We’re going to get change. Now we’re just talking about when and what does it look like, not if.” After all, both parties recognize the need for change. “There is a time clock ticking on the Congress,” he said. “Latino voters have made it crystal clear that they expect Congress to act. They’re looking at 2014 as the election in which they will reward or punish based on the actions taken or not taken.”

Some in the crowd were cautious about Obama’s speech. One Las Vegas immigration lawyer was disappointed that the president did not reference changes in immigration law that could benefit gay and lesbian couples, while another said she thought the speech, while important, did not address specific concerns, such as the status of undocumented parents of legal immigrants.

More skepticism will show up in the coming weeks, as opponents to both legal and unapproved immigration turn up the heat against the Senate and White House proposals. Already, the Federation for American Immigration Reform has attacked both as “amnesty.”

“While promising amnesty and increased legal immigration, President Obama offered nothing regarding enforcement of the law, except maintaining the same nonenforcement policies he has implemented during his first term,” FAIR said in one statement. Of the Senate proposal, it said, “The first component of the bill is a large-scale amnesty for the entire illegal alien population in the United States.”