Immigration a Tough Issue for Mitt Romney

Rebekah Metzler, U.S. News, January 5, 2012


The question facing Democratic and Republican strategists alike is how gracefully Romney can perform the age-old pirouette from party primary, where one must pander to the base, to the general election, where one must pander to the center.

Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz took aim at Romney even before Hawkeye state voters caucused on Tuesday night, seeking to highlight the Republican’s vulnerabilities to reporters at an Iowa press conference.


But experts do point to one issue where a position Romney took in the GOP primary may hurt him in the general election, and that’s immigration. The former governor took one of the most conservative positions of any of the Republican candidates when he said all immigrants currently in the United States illegally—estimated to total more than 10 million—should have to return to their home countries before applying for U.S. citizenship. He called a proposal offered by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to allow immigrants with deep ties to their U.S. communities to stay, while deporting “undesirables,” tantamount to amnesty.

In a November GOP debate, Romney said, “Amnesty is a magnet. People respond to incentives, and if you could become a permanent resident of the United States by coming here illegally, you’ll do so.”


As with many issues, Romney’s stance on immigration during this election seems to differ from positions he’s taken in the past. In 2006, while governor, Romney had said, “I don’t believe in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from our country.” But his campaign maintains the position is consistent—that Romney believes illegal immigrants should return home before starting down the path to U.S. citizenship.

So why might this haunt Romney in the general election?

“A Republican probably can’t win without about 40 percent, minimum, of the Hispanic and Latino vote,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and a well-respected election prognosticator. Sabato adds that the 2008 GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, tallied only about 31 percent support from this voting bloc in his loss to Obama.


Romney’s position has not gone unnoticed by Democrats. On Wednesday, two top House Democrats held a conference call with reporters to denounce both his pledge to veto the DREAM Act as president and his implication that the measure amounts to a “handout.” The proposed legislation would provide a path to citizenship for immigrants who arrived in the country as minors, had lived here for at least five years, and had either served in the military for two years or completed four years of college.


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