In 2004, President George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. In 2008, John McCain won 31 percent. Last week, Mitt Romney won 27 percent.

And as the Republican White House nominee’s share of the Hispanic vote has fallen, the Hispanic share of the electorate has risen.

So, finally, has Republican recognition that the party needs to retreat from its hard line on illegal immigration.

Beyond that obvious ballot-box motive, though, lies this enduring reality:

America needs to fix what ails our immigration system. And that fix must contain a reasonable way for millions of Hispanics who arrived in our nation illegally to gain legal status.

Unfortunately, over the last decade or so, any Republican who dared to acknowledge that truth has been branded as a traitor to the conservative cause.

For instance, right-wing radio powerhouse Rush Limbaugh still calls our senior senator “Lindsey Grahamnesty.”

Sen. Graham’s offense against the strict, hawkish stance so many of his fellow Republicans have taken on immigration: During the second President Bush’s second term, Sen. Graham joined him and Sen. John McCain in seeking common ground with Democrats on comprehensive immigration reform that included a pathway to citizenship.

Though that attempt failed, the immigration challenge remains. Experts estimate that roughly 12 million illegal immigrants now live in our nation, with the overwhelming majority of them coming from south of the U.S. border. Many of those U.S. residents have been here a long time and are productive workers.

On Tuesday in Charleston’s Federal Courthouse, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel heard arguments on how the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling on Arizona’s immigration law should affect South Carolina’s immigration law.

Such laws, passed by numerous states in recent years, have stirred heated debate about civil liberties and the proper limits of federal authority.

But those state laws would never have been passed if the federal government hadn’t long abdicated its responsibility for enforcing national immigration regulations — and Congress hadn’t repeatedly ducked this issue.

Republicans aren’t the only ones to blame. President Barack Obama, despite having strong majorities in both chambers of Congress during his first two years in the White House, showed scant interest in pushing an immigration bill during that period.

The president did, however, further intensify tensions on this topic five months ago with his end run around the legislative process. He issued an executive order preventing potential deportation proceedings against roughly 800,000 young people who entered the U.S. illegally.

On an issue this crucial and divisive, presidential edicts are not the answer.

Congressional action is.

At least the president, during his news conference Wednesday, said that he expects to “begin the process in Congress very soon after my inauguration” for an overdue immigration overhaul.

And Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he and Sen. Graham will work on “comprehensive detailed blueprint” for immigration reform, with “real potential for bipartisan support.”

On the same day, Sen. Graham, appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” stressed the need for a bill to both secure the border and let illegal immigrants “come out of the shadows.” He also lamented that the “tone and rhetoric” of the immigration debate “has built a wall between the Republican Party and the Hispanic community.”

Sen. Graham added: “I intend to tear this wall down and pass an immigration reform bill that’s an American solution to an American problem.”

Better late than never.

The hard line on immigration isn’t just bad politics for Sen. Graham’s party.

It’s bad policy for our nation.