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Does Bush's immigration speech signal Latinos' new clout?

Developments in recent days, including the speech by former President Bush and an Illinois bill to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, suggest a shift in attitudes on immigration issues.

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Former President George W. Bush gives opening remarks at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas for a conference titled 'Immigration and 4% Growth: How Immigrants grow the U.S. Economy,' Dec. 4, in Dallas.

LM Otero/AP

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In the past few days:

• House Republicans (of all people) passed a limited immigration reform bill.

• Former President George W. Bush called for Republicans to embrace a "benevolent spirit" when writing national labor and immigration policy.

Illinois lawmakers moved closer to issuing special driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, joining two other states that already do so.

After years of Republican-controlled state legislatures excoriating a porous border and the economic damage done by undocumented immigrants, these developments suggest that Latinos are suddenly America's most courtable demographic.

The moves come as the Republican Party struggles to tame the outright anti-immigrant hostility that bristled from the primary debates among potential GOP standard-bearers, including the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney.

"What you're seeing now is the result of the massive loss of Hispanic support for the Republican presidential candidate in the recent election," says Susan Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. "When Hispanics, who have the highest unemployment rate of any of the minority groups under the Obama presidency, vote overwhelmingly for Obama, there's a message there – that demonizing immigrants really backfired horribly against the Republican Party."

None of which is to say that illegal immigrants necessarily have a new spring to their step. Laws in Arizona and Alabama now allow police to check the immigration status of those stopped for suspected wrongdoing, in a bold effort to discourage illegal immigration.

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