Mitt Romney Softens Immigration Rhetoric in Speech to Latinos

Posted June 21, 2012 at 8:23pm

Mitt Romney’s carefully calibrated speech today to Latino elected officials included a softer tone than he used during the primaries but only a single, modest concession on the issue of whether young immigrants brought here illegally as children should be deported.

Romney again refused to say whether he would rescind President Barack Obama’s executive action last week to remove the threat of deportation for up to 800,000 illegal immigrants. Instead, Romney said he would put in place a long-term immigration reform plan, but exactly how that plan would deal with illegal immigrants remained far from clear.

“As president, I won’t settle for a stop-gap measure. I will work with Republicans and Democrats to find a long-term solution. I will prioritize measures that strengthen legal immigration and make it easier. And I will address the problem of illegal immigration in a civil but resolute manner. We may not always agree, but when I make a promise to you, I will keep it,” Romney said.

Romney said some illegal immigrants — those who enlist in the military — should have a path to citizenship. But he did not say what he would do about the larger population who have graduated from U.S. schools but do not have legal status.

He repeated his plans to finish building a fence along the border with Mexico and put in place an employee verification system to hinder the ability to find work for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.

Romney’s tone, however, was warmer than the one he used to vanquish rivals during the GOP nominating contest, when he took a hard line against illegal immigration and vowed to veto legislation known as the DREAM Act, which would create a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants. And he followed up on his earlier proposals to boost legal immigration — specifically backing a plan to reallocate green cards to family members of existing legal permanent residents and to put in place a guest worker program — something that has long been a priority of the GOP and employers.

Above all, Romney appealed to Hispanic leaders to see him as an acceptable alternative to Obama, while highlighting the president’s failure to get much done on immigration and pointing to persistent high unemployment among Hispanics as a reason to change.

Romney didn’t risk opening up a big rift with his base or opening himself up to charges of flip-flopping from the primaries, when he said his policies would result in illegal immigrants self-deporting because they would be unable to find work.

The pivot, however, fell well short of what Latino Democratic lawmakers were seeking.

“Mitt Romney’s speech perfectly summarized what he has to offer Latinos: nothing,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said. “No amount of evasive rhetoric and vague pleasantries will hide the basic fact that Mitt Romney won’t stand up for the Dream Act, supports Arizona’s discriminatory, anti-immigrant laws and believes immigrants should ‘self-deport.'”

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) echoed that sentiment.

“He has no proposal on undocumented immigrants and continues to dodge the question of whether he will continue President Obama’s policy to suspend the deportation of DREAM Act students,” Menendez said. “On legal immigration, he endorsed a proposal that I’ve championed to allow the spouses and kids of green-card holders to get visas immediately, yet his party has failed to endorse that approach.”