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Decoding Mitt Romney on Immigration

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With Immigration Sound Bites that Sound Softer to the Unitiated, Romney Tries to Put Rhetorical Lipstick on the Substantive Pig

The immigration discussion at the second presidential debate has led some observers to conclude that Mitt Romney has softened his position on immigration.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.  His strategy the other night, as it has been the entire general election season regarding immigration, was to wrap the iron fist of a hardline set of policies in a velvet glove of reasonable-sounding statements.  The proof that he hasn’t budged at all?  The anti-immigrant movement is thrilled and Latino voters aren’t buying it.

In fact, Romney’s campaign even continued a disturbing pattern of clarifying afterward that he remains committed to his hardline policies. During the debate, Romney seemed to say he would be open to providing permanent residence to all DREAMers, while singling out military service as one possible path to status.  But just like they did several weeks ago with regards to the DREAMer deferred action program, the Romney campaign made it clear after the debate that despite Romney’s confusing and unclear language at the debate, his actual policy positions remain the same.

But don’t just take our word for it.  Witness the reactions from anti-immigrant movement leaders Kris Kobach and Mark Krikorian.  According to the Washington Times, “Kris Kobach, the architect of tough illegal immigrant crackdown laws in Arizona and other states, said Mr. Romney struck the right balance.  ‘He said that we should make it hard for illegal aliens to obtain jobs and taxpayer-subsidized benefits. If we do so, illegal aliens will leave of their own accord.’”  Meanwhile, Krikorian praised Romney because he “did not Etch-a-Sketch” on his answer.  Longtime observer of immigration politics and policy Ron Brownstein of National Journal captured it best when he said that the immigration back-and-forth “seemed to signal that Romney is more focused on reinforcing his lead among white conservatives outraged by illegal immigration than denting the president’s overwhelming advantage among Hispanic voters.”

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “Romney talks in code on immigration.  Out of one side of his mouth come statements that try to portray his positions as reasonable, while out of the other side of his mouth he reaffirms his radical views.  While some journalists have been fooled, Latino voters and anti-immigrant extremists are not.  That’s why Romney is doing so poorly with Latinos, and why anti-immigrant advocates like Kris Kobach are sticking by his side.”

Below, America’s Voice provides insight into Romney’s immigration strategy and plans:

  • Self-deportation is ripped from the playbook of the anti-immigrant movement. The only “choice” is for immigrants to “get out”: At the second debate, Romney presented his “self-deportation” plan as, “We’re not going to round up 12 million people, undocumented, illegals, and take them out of the nation.  Instead, let people make their own choice.”  What Romney is really saying is that the only “choice” is “get out.”  The three-legged policy stool of the “self-deportation” plan, which is based on the radical “attrition through enforcement” strategy of the anti-immigrant movement, was featured in Romney’s comments at the debate: 1) institute mandatory employer verification (E-Verify) in an effort to drive millions of Latino immigrants from the workforce; 2) enact laws like Arizona’s that make it difficult to work and survive in a climate of legalized harassment; and 3) stop any attempt to provide any path to legal status for undocumented immigrants (see this America’s Voice Education Fund report for a detailed overview of “attrition through enforcement”).
  • For DREAMers, Romney clarifies that his “pathway to become a permanent resident” excludes ALL non-military DREAMers: At Tuesday’s debate, Romney said of his plans regarding DREAMers, “The kids of those that came here illegally, those kids I think should have a pathway to become a permanent resident of the United States.  And military service, for instance, is one way they would have that kind of pathway to become a permanent resident.”  Some have viewed this as a potential softening of Romney’s past statements on the topic.  But a Romney aide later clarified to the Washington Times’s Stephen Dinan that Romney is not changing his position at all: Romney spokesman Kyle Downey said, “He wasn’t announcing any new policy last night. The path he’s identified is via military service…Mitt Romney believes that young illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children should have the chance to become permanent residents, and eventually citizens, by serving honorably in the United States military.”  As Dinan writes, “It matters immensely. Estimates for how many illegal immigrants could qualify under the military option range from several hundred up to the tens of thousands, depending on how the program is drawn.  But that’s a long way from the estimated 1.7 million illegal immigrants that could earn tentative legal status under President Obama’s new non-deportation policy or under the Dream Act — legislation that would have granted a full path to citizenship to most illegal immigrants 30 and under.”
  • Latest DREAMer clarification fits into Romney immigration pattern: let people think you’ve moderated, clarify later that you haven’t budged from hardline policy: The clarification to Dinan comes on the heels of a similarly consequential walk-back from the Romney campaign on the subject of DREAMers.  Several weeks back, in an interview with the Denver Post, Romney said in regards to President Obama’s DREAMer deferred action program, “The people who received the special visa that the president has put in place, which is a two-year visa, should expect that the visa would continue to be valid.”  At first, this seemed like a softening of his stance.  We even issued a statement calling it a “step in the right direction.”  However, a follow-up clarification to the Boston Globe and New York Times from the Romney campaign told the whole story.  As described by the Boston Globe, “Romney’s campaign said he would honor deportation exemptions issued by the Obama administration before his inauguration but would not grant new ones after taking office.” This means that at most some 100,000 DREAMers would be safe from deportation, while an estimated 1.3 million DREAMers would be left in the cold.  Furthermore, it highlighted that Romney would not only continue to oppose the DREAM Act, but would actually end the DREAMer deferred action (DACA) program.
  • Romney’s new Spanish-language ad – the “permanent solution” for DREAMers you call for already exists, and you pledged to veto it!  Yesterday, the Romney campaign released a Spanish-language ad that criticizes “liberal Democrats” and President Obama for not delivering immigration reform.  The text of the ad features a pledge that Romney will push for a “permanent solution” for DREAMers.  Yet such a “permanent solution” already exists – it’s called the DREAM Act, it’s traditionally been bipartisan, and just a few months ago Romney pledged to veto it!  As far as the failed immigration promise referenced by Romney’s ad, the predominant obstacle to passing the DREAM Act is Republican obstruction, not Democratic unwillingness.  For example, despite passing the Democratic-led House and winning a majority in the Senate, the DREAM Act failed to receive the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate in December 2010.  After DREAMers refused to give up, President Obama acted boldly this summer and granted an estimated 1.4 million young people relief from deportation and work permits.  Romney has even pledged to end that program…and now he’s claiming to work for a “permanent solution” for DREAMers?  Does he really think Latino voters will buy that?

Concluded Sharry, “Romney’s attempts at obfuscation are too clever by half.  He wants to pretend he’s softening his positions, but he remains tethered to hard-right policies, no matter how he describes them.  But when you put lipstick on a pig, you’re still left with a pig.”

America’s Voice — Harnessing the power of American voices and American values to win common sense immigration reform.