WASHINGTON — Latino voters' decisive tilt toward Democrats in the presidential election has given new life to proposals that would clear a path to legal status for the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. unlawfully.
For the first time in five years, some soul-searching Republicans are calling on the GOP to change its tone and embrace ways to ease the law to keep families together while intensifying efforts to tighten the borders.
"For too long, both parties have used immigration as a political wedge issue," Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said in a telephone interview. "But the time has come to find a bipartisan solution."
President Obama says he is "already seeing signs" that some Republicans are changing their positions, and his staff is in discussions with members of Congress on how to get a bill introduced "very soon" after his January inauguration. White House officials are unlikely to settle for proposals that take narrow slices of the issue because they feel they won't get more than one chance to push through an immigration bill in the next Congress.
"We need to seize the moment," Obama said at a news conference last week.
Some people inside and outside the GOP say it needs to seize the moment too.
Republicans "are in a free-fall, and the only parachute they have is the immigration reform parachute, and they should pull that rip cord," said Angela Kelley, an immigration policy expert at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank based in Washington, D.C.
"A lot are tugging at it," she said.
"Taking people at their word — like Lindsey and Chuck — if they really want to end illegality, then things are possible," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). "We will fairly and compassionately wrestle with what to do with people who are here illegally."
In private conversations with other lawmakers, Graham and Schumer are pushing to revive a proposal they floated in March 2010 that would create a limited guest-worker program and enable illegal immigrants already in the U.S. with no criminal record to pay fines and eventually apply for legal status.
Their plan would create a new, tamper-proof biometric Social Security card, enact stiff fines and prison sentences for employers who repeatedly hire illegal immigrants, and grant automatic green cards to foreigners who graduate from U.S. universities with advanced degrees in high-tech fields.
"We've got to reform our message as it relates to immigration," said Republican Rep. Richard Nugent, a former county sheriff from Florida's northwestern Gulf Coast. "I would hope after this national election we've learned."
But some Republicans, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Susan Collins of Maine, have set their sights on a narrower approach: passing a version of the Dream Act that would create a path to citizenship for people brought to the U.S. unlawfully as children.
"I think it's very obvious that our party needs to take major steps to improve its outreach to women, to younger voters, to Latino voters, and I believe that we should start with the Dream Act bill," Collins said. Although she voted against the Dream Act in 2010, she said her objections could be overcome.
But top Senate Democrats and White House officials think the Dream Act would not go far enough toward solving the central problem: what to do with the millions of people in the country unlawfully. Young people who would qualify for the Dream Act already can apply for work permits under the administration's deferred-action program, which began in August.
"We aren't going to get a second chance to do this bill, and we want to do this the right way," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who talked to Graham last week about working on a comprehensive bill that includes a broad path to legal status.
The White House plans to rally groups that have clout with conservatives — such as business leaders, evangelical Christians, Catholic leaders, police associations and state governors — in hopes of creating political momentum for immigration reform, and political cover for Republican lawmakers.
In addition, a handful of key conservative voices outside Congress, including Rupert Murdoch, Sean Hannity and Charles Krauthammer, have said since the election that they favor a path to legal status for illegal immigrants as a way to wrest the issue from the Democratic Party.
In a postelection interview, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) expressed optimism that a deal could be struck, telling ABC's Diane Sawyer that a "comprehensive approach" to immigration reform was "long overdue." He has declined to endorse a pathway to citizenship, however.
But many House Republicans feel pressure from vocal constituents to hold the line. In response to Boehner's comments, the lobbying group Numbers USA mobilized activists to make thousands of phone calls to congressional offices.
"We have quite a bit of assurance that comprehensive immigration reform won't pass the next Congress," NumbersUSA president Roy Beck said in a telephone interview.
"All of this is just national talk," he said. "The House is not about national talk. It is about one district at a time."
Beck's comments underscore the challenge: Any effort to change immigration laws would likely face strong opposition from a vocal and powerful cadre of Republicans.
Some shaken GOP strategists are urging Boehner to stand up to that wing of the party.
"If we believe in the free market, why are we preventing American businesses from bringing in the workers they need?" said Alfonso Aguilar, a Republican strategist at the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a Washington-based nonprofit.
"The restrictionists are a minority in the party," Aguilar said. "They are not the mainstream."
In a possible sign of shifting party priorities, immigration reform came up at a large, informal gathering of House Republicans on their first day back in the Capitol after the election. And several GOP leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers have indicated they would be open to considering the issue.
"We're going to start having a lot of conversations," said Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), a conservative leader. "There's a lot more we can do to convey the conservative values that we all share."