By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- In the 1980s, San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros helped convene a gathering of Hispanic leaders to christen the time in which they were living: the Decade of the Hispanic.
What they were talking about was a decade when Hispanics in the United States would come into their own in everything from politics to pop culture.
That summit was ahead of its time. Yet, two decades later, it's clear we've embarked on something grander: the Century of the Hispanic.
Congressional Republicans obviously didn't get the memo. If they had, they may not been so eager to use the immigration debate to try to score points at the expense of the nation's largest minority.
That didn't work out so well. And it's just one reason why -- when the new Congress convenes this week -- Republicans will be in the smaller offices while Democrats bask in the power that comes from being in the majority.
In the last election, Hispanics lit into the Republican Party like a swarm of 7-year-olds tearing into a piñata.
Nearly 7 out of 10 Hispanic voters shunned the GOP and tossed their support across the aisle. Democrats earned 69 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared with 30 percent for the GOP.
Conservatives don't want to hear this, but some of the pummeling that Republicans got from Hispanics was payback for the immigration hard-line taken by House Republicans.
According to exit polls by the William C. Velasquez Institute, Hispanics found multiple reasons to be disenchanted with Republicans in Congress. Immigration was just one issue.
But, boy, what an issue! Polls taken before the election described immigration as a "motivator" for Hispanics and one reason many of them were enthusiastic about voting.
So once Democrats control both Houses, what's going to happen on immigration? The signals are mixed.
In the days after the election, there were newspaper articles in which sources in Congress said Democrats might want to put the immigration issue on the back burner and -- certainly in the so-called 100-hour agenda to be kicked off this week -- concentrate on easy victories such as raising the minimum wage, expanding stem cell research, lowering prescription drug prices and tightening congressional ethics rules.
But lately, there's been talk of a bipartisan coalition in Congress that could approve an immigration bill that gives illegal immigrants a path to legal residency and perhaps even defund 700 miles of border fencing approved in the last session.
Sources in Congress are saying that the process will begin in the Senate as early as this month. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, are expected to introduce legislation. It should pass.
Then all eyes will be on the House, which could take up the issue later in the year. What if House Democrats get cold feet and fail to deliver, and Latinos hold them accountable? Let's just say, they may not want to unpack those boxes just yet. In two years, they may have to find their way back to those smaller offices.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. Click here to read his column.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.: We've embarked on the 'Century of the Hispanic.'
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