BY ANDRES OPPENHEIMER
ATLANTA -- Hispanics said ''adiós'' to President Bush's Republican Party in Tuesday's midterm elections, voting in much greater numbers than expected for Democratic candidates in an apparent rejection of the ruling party's efforts to blame much of the nation's problems on undocumented migrants.
Contrary to experts' predictions that Hispanics would not turn out massively on Tuesday, exit polls show that Hispanics accounted for 8 percent of the total vote. That is about equal to the Hispanic vote's record turnout in the 2004 presidential election, and much more than its turnout in previous mid-term elections.
What's more, 73 percent of Hispanics voted for the Democratic Party on Tuesday, while only 26 percent voted for Republican candidates, CNN exit poll shows. In the 2004 presidential elections, 55 percent of Hispanics voted Democrat and about 42 percent voted Republican.
Many experts had predicted that Hispanics would not turn out in big numbers on Tuesday, in part because most of the hottest races took place in states with no major Hispanic presence. Also, experts said that it would take until the 2008 elections for the largely Hispanic ''today we march, tomorrow we vote'' protests of earlier this year to translate into the naturalization and registration of large numbers of foreign-born Latino voters.
But the anti-immigration hysteria spearheaded by Republicans in the House -- and by cable television fear mongers such as Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs -- irked many U.S.-born Hispanics who normally don't care much about immigration.
Republican sponsorship of a law to build a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border and Republican House members' efforts to pass a bill that would have turned millions of undocumented workers into felons fueled a climate that many Hispanics saw as veiled racism.
THEY WENT TOO FAR
Sure, Republican anti-immigration crusaders said they are only against ''illegal'' immigration, and that they have nothing against Hispanics.
But when they accused Hispanic immigrants of draining Social Security coffers, clogging schools and hospitals, being potential terrorists and bringing infectious diseases into the United States -- I'm not making this up -- millions of Hispanic-heritage U.S. citizens felt insulted. It was as if all Hispanics were suddenly cast as potential national security threats.
If the Republican effort to put immigration at the center stage of the political agenda was aimed at drawing national attention away from Iraq, or to mobilize their constituencies to get out and vote on Tuesday, it didn't work with the general public either.
Exit polls show that when asked which issues were extremely important to them, 42 percent of all voters on Tuesday said corruption and ethics, 40 percent said terrorism, 39 percent mentioned the economy, 37 percent said Iraq, 36 percent said values and 29 percent said illegal immigration.
And many candidates who campaigned on get-tough-against-illegal-immigrants were defeated. Randy Graf, an Arizona Republican who centered his campaign on immigrant bashing and supported the Minuteman vigilante group, was among the many defeated anti-immigration candidates.
Of 15 races where immigration was the center of the debate, tracked by immigration2006.org, 12 were won by immigration moderates and only two by hard-line anti-immigration activists.
Even some Democrats who embraced the anti-immigration cause, such as Tennessee Senate candidate Harold Ford, who accused his Republican rival of having hired illegal immigrants, were defeated.
My opinion: Great! The Republican strategy of blaming undocumented workers for many of the country's ills backfired. Now, with luck, candidates for the 2008 presidential election will abandon the populist enforcement-centered political deceptions of anti-immigration crusaders and seek serious solutions to stop the flow of migrants to the U.S. borders.
Instead of backing a useless 700-mile fence, which will only push migrants to enter the United States elsewhere along the 2,000-mile border, they should look into ways of helping reduce the income gap between the United States, Mexico and the rest of Latin America.
As long as the United States' per capita income of $42,000 a year continues to be as far ahead of Mexico's $10,000 a year, or Nicaragua's $2,900 a year, there will be no fences high or wide enough to stop the flow of migrants.