Opinion: The Latino Rising

America is changing color in real time, and I’m not talking fall foliage. The just-concluded United States Census estimates the population of Hispanic/Latino Americans surging toward 50 million. It is the nation’s largest ethnic group. More broadly, the U.S. already has the second largest Latino population of any nation in the world, larger than Spain and trailing only Mexico. Already more than 16 percent of our nation, one in four Americans will be ethnic Latinos by 2040. By the end of the century, if this trend holds, the country will be majority Latino.

That demographic tsunami does not sit well with many otherwise well-meaning Americans because it carries the threat that these newcomers will change the country, making it something other than the beacon of individual freedom and liberty it has always been. Concern over Latino immigration also coincides with our rocky economy and growing displeasure and disenchantment with President Obama. At innumerable rallies and town hall meetings, critics of the president express a sense that long-held core values and principles are being replaced or usurped, that they are also ‘changing’. There is disquiet in the land, and a widespread suspicion that the president’s next ‘change’ will be to grant illegal immigrants amnesty.

And no issue has aggravated citizen insecurity and anger more sharply than immigrant amnesty, not even taxes or bloated government.

How else to explain the passage in Arizona of harsh legislation (SB1070) that seeks to empower local cops to stop and card anyone even suspected of being in the United States illegally? How strange is that: a state law (now thankfully enjoined by a federal judge) that empowers any cop with a tinge of suspicion to stop and frisk someone the cop thinks might be an illegal? What does that mean? Is this the beginning of two-tiered citizenship? The lower one for those suspected of being Hispanic?

Small wonder three out of four Latino-Americans oppose this law, which ensures our youngsters, citizens included, will suffer disproportionate harassment. At a recent traffic stop, my own 22-year old son Cruz was asked, “Where you from, son?” But who else are the cops going to ask: some tourist with a sunburn, whom they overhear speaking Hungarian?

Despite the fact that the rates of both illegal immigration and violent crime have dropped dramatically in Arizona and across the nation in recent years, the widely held American nightmare is of a cascade of dark, Spanish-speaking foreigners pouring over the fence and looking to commit crime, import terrorism and steal public services.

All those phobias are proven falsehoods. Yet driven by talk radio and cable news fear mongering, national surveys consistently show huge support for SB1070 among Anglo Americans; there are movements afoot in a dozen or more states to pass similar measures. But the potency of the immigration issue is most clearly seen right now in Arizona, where with just a few days until the election the once hugely unpopular incumbent, Governor Jan Brewer, has soared ahead of her Democratic opponent, Terry Goddard. That surge is due in large part because of her vigorous support of SB1070, which her Goddard thankfully opposes.

Whatever the outcome of that race, campaigning against immigrants in the near future will have disastrous consequences for Republicans. I call Barack Obama the first Hispanic president because in swing states like Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida and North Carolina, new Latino voters turned red into blue in 2008. And the impact wasn’t only felt in the race for the White House.

In its November 2008 post-election report, “the GOP: Fenced in by Immigration,” the important Web site Immigration08.com tracked 21 battleground House and Senate races across the country where one of the candidates was more hard-line/enforcement-only than the other on the issue of immigration reform.

In 19 of those 21 races, the more liberal, pro-comprehensive reform candidate won. With Hispanics already comprising 25 percent of the population in Arizona, and more than 30 percent in Texas, it will not be long in those states before candidates and initiatives perceived as targeting Hispanics will not sit well with most voters.

Read tomorrow, when Geraldo Rivera will offer a bold suggestion for President Obama to force Congress to address the issue of immigration.

Geraldo Rivera is a columnist for Fox News Latino.