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One Year Ago Today, Mitt Romney Said "Answer Is Self-Deportation," Setting Stage for His Loss in November

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Cross-posted at Daily Kos:

Happy anniversary! One year ago today, January 23, at a GOP presidential debate in Florida, Mitt Romney first announced his support for self-deportation and set the stage for his loss in November.  To jog your memory, here’s how Romney responded to a question from co-moderator Adam Smith of the Tampa Bay Times about how a President Romney would deal with the undocumented immigrant population in the nation:

The answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they could do better by going home because they can’t find work here because they don’t have legal documentation to allow them to work here.

And the rest is history.

In our report from last year, we noted that Romney’s endorsement of self-deportation meant he was championing a radical anti-immigrant policy, one aimed at expelling 11 million undocumented immigrants–a population the size of Ohio–from the United States.

This strategy, originally called “attrition through enforcement,” had been developed and pushed by restrictionists like Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies; Roy Beck of Numbers USA, Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR); Kris Kobach, the author of the Arizona and Alabama anti-immigrant laws; anti-immigrant Reps. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Rep. Steve King (R-IA); and former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) — a whole roster of people you wouldn’t exactly call “immigrant friendly.”

By the time of the Tampa debate, the Romney campaign was already staking out the hard right flank on immigration.  Just a couple of weeks earlier, in Iowa, Romney had vowed to veto the DREAM Act. But we had a sense that this call for self-deportation would be a defining moment in the campaign — and it was.

Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies also thought it was an important moment in the campaign, though for different reasons than we did.  Calling it a “sensible middle way” at National Review, he wrote:

 Self-deportation is the core of a policy of attrition through enforcement, which has been the strategic framework for all the pro-enforcement measures of the past several years, at both the federal and state levels. The point is that illegal immigrants are persuaded to leave (to self-deport) because the party’s over — they can’t get jobs or a driver’s license (or welfare or in-state tuition) and, facing changed incentives, decide to return home. It’s the sensible middle way between rounding everybody up tomorrow, which we couldn’t do if we wanted to, and amnesty, which would just lead to another 11 million illegals a few years from now…

The fact that Romney brought it up suggests someone in his campaign has given the matter at least a little thought, which is more than I can say for Gingrich.

Clearly, the Romney campaign didn’t give the idea enough thought. While the anti-immigrant crowd rejoiced, others sensed a political disaster. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham even staged an intervention–but it was too late. Polling from Latino Decisions in June 2012 showed the impact of Romney’s hardline anti-immigrant move:

In contrast to these recent statements by Obama, the survey also tested enthusiasm towards policy statements by Mitt Romney on immigration. Respondents were asked whether Romney’s statements calling on undocumented immigrants to self-deport back to their “home” countries, and to make immigration laws in Arizona a model for the nation, made them more or less enthusiastic about Romney. Among Latino registered voters in five key battleground states, 10% said the Romney statements made them more enthusiastic, while 59% said the statements made them less enthusiastic about Romney, a net enthusiasm deficit of -49 points.

What a difference a year makes.  Mitt Romney’s call for self-deportation unleashed a chain of events–from Senator Rubio’s rebuffed efforts to help the candidate save himself, to the President’s decision to stop running from the immigration issue and give DREAMers work permits.  Latino voters turned out in record levels, and voted for Democrats at record levels, in November.

Immediately following the election, many Republican leaders realized that the immigration issue was killing them and they needed to reverse course sharply and soon.  Sure, people like Krikorian and Kobach are still arguing, pathetically, that self-deportation is the way forward.  But they are up against a public in favor of reform that includes a path to legal status and citizenship, a more assertive President, and a more willing Congress.

Happy Anniversary, Mitt.  Your foolish foray one year ago helped to clarify the often confusing and controversial immigration reform debate.  We’re now heading towards a major legislative breakthrough on immigration, one that will create a path to citizenship for the same people you wanted to force out of the country.