Mitt Romney immigration policy: Will it win some Latino voters?

In an address to Latino officials Thursday, Mitt Romney softened his tone as he laid out immigration policy. But he still won't say whether he would first overturn Obama's new policy to help young illegal immigrants.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, speaks at the NALEO (National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials) conference in Orlando, Fla., Thursday, June 21.

After a primary season marked by hard-line rhetoric toward illegal immigrants, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney sought to hit the reset button on immigration in a speech Thursday to Latino-American officials.

Talk of “self-deportation” is out. Promises of bipartisan collaboration toward a “long-term solution” on immigration are in.

Given Mr. Romney’s gaping deficit in support from Hispanic voters, his election in November may depend on his ability to fix the perception that his party is inhospitable to them. President Obama’s surprise announcement last Friday offering young undocumented immigrants a legal, though temporary, way to avoid deportation has made Romney’s task all the harder.

But in his address to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) in Orlando, Fla., Romney started up that hill. He accused Mr. Obama of doing nothing to advance a permanent fix for the broken US immigration system. Then he addressed the president’s June 15 announcement.

“Some people have asked if I will let stand the president's executive action,” Romney said. “The answer is that I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president's temporary measure.”

His answer sidestepped the core question: Would he undo Obama’s policy, in advance of trying for a larger solution to immigration, just as he promises that on his first day as president, he would issue state waivers on health-care reform if the US Supreme Court does not strike it down first – then work on a longer-term solution?

In his address, Romney laid out his immigration plan: redouble efforts to secure US borders and make it harder to overstay visas; reallocate green cards to keep families together; issue green cards to foreigners who earn advanced degrees in the United States; and offer a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants who serve in the US military.

“But improving access to legal immigration is only one part of the equation,” Romney said. “We must also make legal immigration more attractive than illegal immigration so that people are rewarded for waiting patiently in line.”

That’s why, he said, his administration would establish a “strong employment verification system” so that businesses can be confident they are hiring people eligible for employment.

The challenge for Romney is to reach out to Hispanic voters, many of whom know people who are in the country illegally, while not alienating conservatives who reject any proposal that can be called “amnesty.” During a GOP debate in January, Romney promised to veto the DREAM Act – legislation providing a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants who complete some college or perform military service. He then softened his stance by saying he would sign a DREAM Act that offers citizenship only via military service. 

The DREAM Act is popular among Latinos. And now that he is assured his party’s nomination, Romney is softening his tone. But less than five months before Election Day, the former Massachusetts governor faces low support among Latino registered voters. A May survey by NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo shows 61 percent supporting Obama, 27 percent backing Romney.

In 2008, Obama won 67 percent of the Latino vote to 31 percent for GOP nominee John McCain. In George W. Bush’s two presidential election victories, he won at least 40 percent each time. Romney doesn’t have to win the Latino vote; he just needs enough to supplement his advantage among white non-Hispanic voters.

In a bit of demographic misfortune for Romney, some of the most important battleground states have large, fast-growing Latino populations, including Florida, Nevada, and Colorado.

In his speech to NALEO, Romney started with a message of economic opportunity, aware that the economy is the top issue for all voters. He noted that unemployment among Hispanics is 11 percent, higher than the 8.2 percent national average.

“The middle class under President Obama has been crushed,” Romney said. “More Americans are living in poverty today than any point in American history. Over 2 million more Hispanics are living in poverty today than the day when President Obama took office.”

Romney suffered a miscue earlier this week when ABC News reported that he wasn’t considering Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – the only Latino Republican in the Senate – as his running mate. After a day of speculation, Romney came out and asserted that Senator Rubio was in fact under consideration. But the flap appeared to snub one of the Republican Party’s brightest young stars.

At a Monitor-hosted breakfast Thursday, Rubio defended Romney and his handling of the immigration issue. He said Romney’s comment about “self-deportation” in a January debate – that immigrants would go to their native countries of their own accord – was not a statement of policy.

“It is an observation of what people will do in a country that is enforcing its immigration laws,” Rubio said. “And I think quite frankly some of that is happening now because of economic improvement in Mexico.”

Rubio also rejected the idea that Romney has been vague in his views on immigration.

“I don’t think he has struggled to articulate his position,” Rubio said. “He supports legal immigration and anything he can do to improve the legal immigration system.... He doesn’t have an immigration bill per se, but neither does the president.”

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