Mitt Romney’s New Tune on Immigration

By Fawn Johnson

After running to the right on immigration issues in the primaries, Mitt Romney is softening his rhetoric. Have his positions changed?

Mitt Romney is reaching out to Hispanic voters, promising bipartisan answers that will bring families together and create “permanent solutions” for undocumented youth. He criticizes President Obama for doing nothing to fix the immigration problem. He promises to work with Democrats if he becomes president. But even though his tone has changed on immigration, he hasn’t moved an inch from positions that were considered the most conservative of the field in the Republican primary.

The Romney campaign thinks his message is resonating well enough that it put his statements into a Spanish-language TV ad called Soluciones para la Inmigracion. The ad outraged Latinos pushing for the Dream Act to legalize undocumented youth. They said it was misleading and demanded that it be taken off the air. Romney has made no legalization promises for young people except for those who join the military, although the ad makes no mention of that caveat.

“The great thing for us is that Romney has declined to accept the Bush agenda for the most part. It’s one of the great things about getting the candidate to commit … during the primary,” said Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, a conservative group focused on immigration issues.

Immigration hard-liners such as Beck skewered President George W. Bush for supporting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, for negotiating with immigrant-friendly politicians such as Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and for embracing the business lobby’s request for broader access to foreign labor. Since Bush’s efforts collapsed in 2007, immigration hard-liners have made sure that Republican candidates pay a price for positions like those that he advocated. Texas Gov. Rick Perry kissed his presidential ambitions good-bye last year partly as a result of a GOP backlash against his support of letting undocumented students pay in-state college tuition rates.

By contrast, Romney struck all the right notes in the primary season. On immigration, “he was taking … the most blue-collar, grassroots, economic populist position,” Beck said. Romney vehemently opposed amnesty. He promised to veto the Dream Act. He sang the praises of e-verify, the federal government’s computer check to ensure that job candidates are legally eligible to work.

In the primary debates, Romney sounded a lot like the most well-known immigration conservatives—people like former Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., or Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. “This one is not tough. You build a fence. You have enough border-patrol agents to secure the fence.… [Illegal immigrants] need to go back home, apply for citizenship, apply for legal residency, like everyone else,” Romney said in a Jan. 19 debate in South Carolina.

The only difference between then and now is that Romney has stepped up his criticism of Obama’s attempts to deal with the issue. He asks where the immigration bill is that Obama promised in his first year as president. He says that the administration’s deferred-deportation program for undocumented young adults is a Band-Aid.

Romney has not backed away from the snicker-inducing phrase “self-deportation” he floated during the GOP primary, when he asserted that undocumented immigrants would leave of their own accord if unable to work here. Recently, he has said he would not deport illegal immigrants unless they are criminals. (Obama has a similar stance.) Romney sounded family-friendly on the Spanish-language TV network Univision in September, saying he would not “round up” undocumented “children and parents.” Romney admits that he has not been “the standard-bearer” on immigration issues. But he adds that Obama has let down those people who care deeply about immigration reform. This is a subtle shift in tone, but it’s making him sound like he’s willing to make a deal when Obama isn’t.

“He is trying to be more moderate, and I think he really will be. He doesn’t like the Dream Act, and I think the reason he doesn’t like it is because it picks winners and losers,” said Helen Krieble, president of the free-market Vernon K. Krieble Foundation. Krieble gets excited when she talks about Romney, largely because he has borrowed some of her ideas, such as outsourcing the visa and employment-verification system to the private sector and requiring all visa applicants to get their papers outside of the United States. Those were radical concepts once, shunned by Republicans as unworkable and by Democrats as inhumane.

“Moderate” is a relative term, particularly on immigration. Democrats consider the Dream Act moderate. Republicans call it amnesty. It was a concession for Democrats to allow the Senate to take an up-or-down vote on the Dream Act in 2010 when they wanted a much broader legalization system for 11 million undocumented immigrants. They flinch at the very idea that Romney could be showing moderation on immigration. “I’m going to pretend like I’m pro-immigrant. But when it comes to the 11 million, the only people I have any sympathy for are those who are ready to go into the military,” said America’s Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry in an imitation of Romney’s recent stance.

But Democrats aren’t the ones that Romney needs to engage if he wants action. They have been ready to deal for five years. Romney needs to focus on traditional, no-amnesty conservatives while at the same time courting the market-oriented side of the Republican Party by discussing work permits and cleaning up the dysfunctional visa system.

So far, he has appeased the hard-liners while giving the business executives reason for hope. “I think Mitt Romney gets this,” said Brad Bailey, who heads the Hard Work Clean Hands Initiative, a conservative business group that advocates for a work-visa program that would be open to those here illegally. “There are a lot of people that are excited that weren’t excited before.” If that’s moderation, then Romney has succeeded.

This article appeared in print as “The Conservatives’ Moderate.”

This article appeared in the Saturday, October 27, 2012 edition of National Journal.

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