WASHINGTON—Because of the debate over immigration reform, the word “Hispanic” became a stigma in the eyes of many Americans over the last two years. How ironic then that 10 million Hispanic voters played such a crucial role in last week’s presidential election. They voted for Barack Obama by a 2-1 margin, giving him a decisive push in four states—Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico—that he wrested back from the GOP.

Hispanics have tended to side with the Democrats, but never by this large of a margin. According to 2004 exit polls, President Bush obtained 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in his re-election bid. One would think that by almost any measure—upward social mobility, church attendance, marriage patterns—Hispanics would be a dream electoral target for a party that champions enterprise, self-reliance and family values.

But the GOP this year did not seem interested. Even in the wake of the immigration debate, Latinos hardly organized in any meaningful way to fight back—except for those May Day demonstrations in 2006 and 2007. There was nothing predetermined in their support of Obama—as the Democratic primaries clearly showed. And yet, even accounting for the fact that Hispanics, like many other demographic groups, wanted to punish the current administration and were eventually seduced by the candidate who courted them intensely, the shift in their vote is astounding. It is as if the relentless anti-immigration voice on the right managed to turn millions of Hispanics who were not illegal immigrants into a community-conscious force acting in fear of a perceived threat. This fear even produced the irony of California Hispanics voting for the center-left of the political spectrum in the general election while siding with the right on social issues, as shown by their vote against Proposition 8—the anti-gay marriage initiative.

Politicians will now begin to look closely at some important trends among Hispanics. I don’t mean the obvious fact that they represent 15 percent of the population and by the year 2050 will probably make up one-quarter of the nation. Almost 4 million Hispanics—nearly one in 10—are financially well-off, according to the U.S. Census, and about 40 percent are middle class. This is a not a small achievement for people whose beginnings are, for the most part, quite humble. Treating them as alien to the mainstream American experience and culture is an act of political suicide.

This past year took care of some of the myths that emerged during the immigration debate. The number of illegal immigrants coming into the U.S. has dropped by about half, in no small measure due to market conditions—which is the way immigrant flows usually work. When they are in high demand, they come in flocks. When demand goes down—as has been the case in agriculture, construction and other industries—they stay home. If the welfare state—free public education, access to health care—were the main attraction, the flow would not change so dramatically from one year to the next. Which is not to say that migrants who want to live off the rest of society are not imposing an unacceptable toll on it. But that is ultimately a case for profoundly revising the welfare state, not for stigmatizing all immigrants.

In the last four decades, the anti-immigration cause has gone from being championed by the left to being mostly championed by the right. There used to be a guest-worker program called “bracero” in the United States. It was instituted in 1942 but killed in the 1960s because of labor union objections. That is quite fitting, since unions tend to act as protectionist guilds that fear competition and people whom they do not control. Cesar Chavez, the famed Hispanic union leader, himself opposed that guest-worker program.

It is time to move beyond hysteria and start to look at Hispanics with a more open mind. In a radio address given in 1977, Ronald Reagan mocked “the illegal alien fuss,” asking himself: “Are great numbers of our unemployed really victims of the illegal alien invasion, or are those illegal tourists actually doing work our own people won’t do?” If only in the interest of political survival, those who claim to idolize the Gipper—the same guy who in 1986 legalized almost 3 million Hispanics, many of whom were driven by fear to vote for Obama—should think again.