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Finding Common Ground with Bush on Immigration

A Customs and Border Protection agent drives along the border wall in San Ysidro, Calif. Getty Images hide caption

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While the Democrats' new power in Congress may mean trouble for the Bush administration on some issues, it could help the president on immigration. President Bush has long called for a guest-worker program, and on Wednesday he said he sees "common ground" on that with Democrats.

The president's main obstacle had been his own party's hard-liners in the House, many of whom saw illegal immigration as their campaign trump card. Their ads blasted Democratic opponents for supporting "amnesty." They touted their own vote for a wall along the Mexican border. Some likened illegal immigration to a "war" more consequential than Iraq.

Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg says it all backfired: The strategy didn't work, and the GOP ended up alienating Hispanics, the fastest-growing part of the U.S. electorate. It's a mistake that "could cost them for a generation," he says. The new Democratic majority, he says, is likely to be open to working with the president on comprehensive immigration reform.

But Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants less immigration, argues that illegal immigration failed to boost the GOP's support at the polls only because Democrats had adopted similar stances on the issue. He points out that many Democrats sounded just as tough as their opponents on immigration. If they support large-scale legalization, they didn't talk about it on the campaign trail.

Many of the newly elected Democrats are from more conservative parts of the country, where issues such as border security play well. Republican pollster Ed Goaes points out that there are already three dozen so-called "blue dog Democrats" — social and fiscal conservatives within the party — who'll be returning to Congress, and they may or may not toe the party line.

There are other divisions. Many African-American Democrats are not keen to legalize a workforce they view as the competition.

Still, Goaes thinks there will be public pressure for members of Congress to keep at it on immigration. His surveys find a substantial proportion of voters believe the border wall is not a solution, but a first step. Half or more —- depending on party and region — support legalizing foreign workers.