Obama and Mitt Romney’s immigration incoherence

By WAPO Editorial Board

IF ONLY HE were Hispanic, Mitt Romney mused in his secretly recorded comments unearthed by Mother Jones magazine, his electoral prospects would be so much brighter. “I say that jokingly,” said the Republican presidential nominee, who plainly wasn’t joking at all, “but it would be helpful to be Latino.”

Looking at his poll numbers, the reasons for Mr. Romney’s wistfulness — and for his angst about Hispanic votes — are apparent. Among that fast-growing segment of the electorate, President Obama enjoys better than a 2-to-1 lead over Mr. Romney, roughly the same margin that helped him win key swing states in 2008.

So in search of some street cred that might lift his chances in Colorado, Nevada or Virginia, Mr. Romney has cited what passes for his Hispanic roots — the fact that his father, George, was born (to American parents) in Mexico — and has deployed his son Craig, who speaks Spanish, in ads on Spanish-language media.

Very nice. But if Mr. Romney really wants to make inroads into Mr. Obama’s lead among Hispanics, what he needs is an immigration policy that is fair, cogent and economically rational. That would be a refreshing change from his stance of the past six months, during which he first embraced harsh rhetoric and draconian policies, then tried to fuzz it away at the margins.

In Mr. Romney’s latest foray into immigration policy, during a forum broadcast online by the Spanish-language Univision network, he promised to “put into place an immigration reform system that resolves this issue.” And how exactly would he do that? The candidate wouldn’t say.

Mr. Romney did say what he wouldn’t do — he wouldn’t round up and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. But he remains stuck with the more punitive policies that he favored during the GOP primaries, when he said he would push illegal immigrants to “self-deport” by making it impossible for them to work; vowed to veto the Dream Act, which would grant legal status to undocumented young people who were brought into the country by their parents; pledged to complete the 2,000-mile border fence along the Mexican border; cozied up to Arizona’s draconian “show-me-your-papers” law by promising to drop the federal litigation against it on his first day as president; and enlisted Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a leading crusader against illegal immigration and an architect of the Arizona law, as an adviser to his campaign.

Mr. Romney’s positions, which are really no more than slogans, avoid all the tough questions that would attend a serious debate on immigration reform. He says he would support temporary work visas, but does he really suppose those could be issued in sufficient numbers to replace the millions of undocumented workers who he hopes would “self-deport”? He says he would staple a green card to advanced degrees in math, science and engineering earned by foreign students, but would he do so at the cost of eliminating other immigration visas, as congressional Republicans insist? And what would he do about the undocumented youngsters — as many as 1.7 million of them — whom Mr. Obama has made eligible for temporary legal status? Mr. Romney isn’t saying.

His dilemma is trying to shave off enough Hispanic support to avoid a repetition of 2008’s electoral results while not offending the Republican base, whose inflexible opposition to most reforms combines nativism with economic incoherence. So far, Mr. Romney has been unable to square that circle.

Mr. Obama, for his part, has failed to make progress on his 2008 campaign promise to enact sweeping immigration reform that would include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And he has angered some Hispanics and immigration advocacy groups by stepping up the pace of deportations.

But he is right that the main hurdle to a meaningful deal on immigration — one that would tighten enforcement and acknowledge reality by extending some form of amnesty to 11 million undocumented immigrants — is the uniform opposition of congressional Republicans, including those who once favored such an approach.

So the president has been left to implement partial measures that have injected some sanity into the policy without actually fixing it. Border security has been substantially beefed up, and illegal crossings from Mexico are at their lowest levels in 40 years. Deportations continue, but with a sensible focus on undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes. Undocumented residents younger than 30 have been allowed to apply for temporary legal status, provided they have no criminal record and have finished high school, attend college or serve in the military.

Both candidates acknowledge the reality that 11 million illegal immigrants will not be made to disappear, though Mr. Romney seems to wish that somehow they would, on their own initiative. Yet only the president has embraced the goal of enacting legislation that recognizes the U.S. economy relies on the 7 million undocumented immigrants in the labor force, most of whom have been in the country for a decade or more and many of whom have American-born children.

As for Mr. Romney, saying he would solve the problem is not the same as presenting a blueprint to do so. By fudging the specifics, he has made clear that he really has no policy at all and indicated that a Romney presidency would turn a blind eye to the nation’s broken immigration system.

this op-ed appeared on the WAPO and 9/26/12

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