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State Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, center, talks during a news conference at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, June 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The evidence keeps piling up that the 2012 election was a watershed event for immigration policy, as the weight of ballot boxes appears to have broken the chains of resistance that have long prevented action to fix a broken system.

The shift among Republican elected officials in California has been sudden and dramatic.

While there is now some momentum in Washington, D.C., for bipartisan immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for those who have long lived illegally in the shadows of American society, in Sacramento that momentum appears to have the velocity of a freight train.

Last week, the state Senate -- on a 32-0 vote that included support from five Republicans -- approved a resolution asking Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. On the question of providing a pathway to citizenship, the language of the resolution was unambiguous.

"A logical and streamlined path to citizenship for individuals after they gain legal status would stimulate the economy," it stated.

Following that vote, three of the five Republican lawmakers who joined 13 Democrats to co-author the resolution -- Sens. Tom Berryhill of Modesto, Anthony Cannella of Ceres and GOP leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar -- penned an op-ed that was published in six community newspapers that circulate in predominantly Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles County.

"The Republican Party has always believed in opportunity for all, and it is time we put words into action," they wrote. "Opportunity for all means ensuring a reasonable path to legalization for our immigrant population."

That was followed this week by bipartisan support from an Assembly committee for a bill -- co-authored by Cannella -- that would allow those living in the country illegally to obtain California driver's licenses.

All this represents a 180-degree turnaround by state Republicans.

It was just three years ago this month that GOP gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner began airing tough, anti-illegal immigration TV ads in the party primary campaign that rebuked front-runner Meg Whitman for espousing the same position those Republican senators now embrace.

Poizner's strategy nearly worked; Whitman's huge lead in the polls nearly evaporated. She regained her footing only after she renounced -- or, more accurately, denied the plain words she had previously spoken -- her support for a policy to allow those now living here illegally to obtain legal status.

She rebounded only after airing TV commercials featuring former Gov. Pete Wilson promising that Whitman would be "tough as nails" on illegal immigration.

Arguably, that shift allowed her to win the Republican primary, but doomed her chances in the general election, in which Democrat Jerry Brown captured nearly two-thirds of the Latino vote.

After that same scenario played out nationally in 2012 -- front-runner Mitt Romney driven into taking a hard-nosed stance on immigration during the primary and then being shunned by Latino voters in the fall -- leading Republicans decided to re-evaluate their position and change the script.

The wisdom of that decision is borne out by two recent surveys conducted by the polling organization Latino Decisions.

The first found that two-thirds of Latino voters in the U.S. have a family member, close friend or co-worker who is in the country illegally and that 58 percent ranked immigration reform as their No. 1 issue of concern.

The second, released last week, surveyed 400 immigrants without legal standing and found that 85 percent have family members who are U.S. citizens and 68 percent have been here more than a decade.

"These people are not 'aliens' at all," said Stanford Professor Gary Segura, a principal in the polling firm. "They're not isolated, they're not strangers."

Maricela Morales, deputy director of the Ventura-based community organizing group CAUSE, told me that the poll's findings ring true with what immigrant advocates have seen in Ventura County.

"Immigration is a family phenomenon, and why wouldn't it be?" Morales said. "Family is core to the human experience."

It appears that Cannella and several of his colleagues have looked at election results and figured out what has escaped California Republicans for 20 years. They now understand why Latino voters hear harsh language directed at those living here illegally as an affront to their families and their community.

What remains to be seen is whether GOP voters in California have developed a similar understanding.

There will be another primary election next year. Will those Republicans who now embrace a pathway to citizenship find themselves challenged by candidates who condemn that position? And, if so, will they stand their ground and ultimately prevail?

The answers to those questions will determine whether the California GOP will be able to find a pathway to political recovery.