The election has strengthened President Obama's hand on immigration, and Dream Act organizers said it likely means a flood of hundreds of thousands of new applications for his nondeportation policy — but it's not clear that anything has changed in the decade-long stalemate in Congress on the issue.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said Wednesday that he will insist the upper chamber hold votes on immigration legislation.
He called the issue "very, very high" on his to-do list, after Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama on Tuesday.
Exit polls showed the president winning 71 percent of Hispanics, which is up from the 67 percent he won in 2008 in the rapidly expanding voter bloc. Basking in those numbers, immigration rights advocates said they are eager to collect the rewards of their support.
"It's time for Latinos to cash their check for the Dream Act and for immigration reform," said Cesar Vargas, who has applied for Mr. Obama's nondeportation policy.
But he said the president's victory likely will mean a flood of applications from other young adults who had waited, fearful that they would be judged by a less-lenient Romney administration than by Mr. Obama's.
For the past decade, immigration has been stymied in Congress, including failed attempts in 2006 and 2007 with President Bush. Mr. Obama promised to take action during his first term, but instead tackled health care, the economy, climate change and financial regulations.
Facing re-election without having acted, he took unilateral steps in June by announcing that he no longer would deport most illegal immigrants 30 and younger who had steered clear of major criminal problems. The policy, known as "deferred action," energized Hispanic voters on behalf of Mr. Obama — all the more so since Republican nominee Mitt Romney opposed the move.
Looking at Tuesday's election, Frank Sharry, head of advocacy group America's Voice, said the conclusion is clear: Democrats, some of whom had been reluctant to touch immigration for fear of political consequences, saw it as a major winner.
"Yesterday's election basically said it's a wedge issue for Democrats," Mr. Sharry said. "Democrats are really starting to feel their oats on this issue: 'If we lean into it, it mobilizes Latinos, swing voters actually like the leadership, and Republicans — it makes them divided.'"
All of that, plus Mr. Reid's vow to hold votes with his expanded Democratic majority in the Senate, should mean major pressure for a Republican Party still trying to figure out how to rebuild a winning national majority in presidential elections.
But voters returned Republicans to a majority in the House, and there is little evidence that the chamber has moved closer to trying to pass the broad legalization bills that Democrats seek.
Kris W. Kobach, Kansas secretary of state and the co-architect of many state immigration-crackdown laws, said polling earlier this year shows independents liked Mr. Romney's stand on immigration more than Mr. Obama's.
He said he doesn't see any way that House Republicans would accept an immigration bill that includes amnesty for illegal immigrants.
"The Democrats and Obama have been unyielding on that point — that they insist upon an amnesty, and Republicans rightly said 'No, we'll go along with a whole host of changes, but not ones that reward amnesty.'"
Mr. Kobach, who is leading a lawsuit to try to halt Mr. Obama's nondeportation policy, said the more likely avenue for action is in the states.
He said he expects more of them to adopt Arizona-style laws giving police powers to check the legal status of those with whom they come into contact. The Supreme Court earlier this year upheld that part of Arizona's law, though it struck down other provisions.
But he also said he expects Mr. Obama to use his own executive powers more, in the face of continued congressional deadlock.
Indeed, immigrant rights advocates said that is exactly what they will ask him to do if Mr. Obama cannot get a legalization bill through Congress.
In his first term, the president walked a tightrope, increasing deportations and instituting new agreements with state and local police and jails to try to identify deportable immigrants. But patience is running thin.
"I think he's under time pressure because 1 million people have been deported, and we can't wait around for another year or two as another half-million or million get deported," said Douglas Rivlin, spokesman for Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, the Illinois Democrat who has taken on leadership of the immigration issue in the House.
"People's lives are being ruined in the meantime because we have a mass-deportation policy. I know Congressman Gutierrez is going to be very interested in the president calling [Republican Sens.] Lindsey Graham or Marco Rubio or [Mitch] McConnell or whoever he needs to call in the Republican Party, get them to Camp David for the weekend, and see what we can do on immigration reform — sooner rather than later," Mr. Rivlin said.
Mr. Sharry agreed that Mr. Obama will face pressure to act, but said if president had the will, he could use the threat of unilateral action to force Republicans to the table.
"If he wanted to, what he could do is say, 'All right, Republicans, work with me on this, or I'm going to use my executive authority to do more popular things that Latinos love,'" he said.
In the meantime, Mr. Obama will still be able to grant tentative legal status to younger immigrants under his deportation policies — something Mr. Vargas has waited for years to earn.
A law school graduate, Mr. Vargas also hopes that the election could convince courts that the new deportation policy is here to stay — which he hopes means he will be able to join the bar and practice law.
"It means a lot to me," he said Wednesday. "It means I can try to be productive in terms of seeking out employment. It means that my younger brother can also get deferred action."
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