Has Romney moved to the center on immigration?

Liz Goodwin
The Ticket

As Mitt Romney continues to climb in the polls, some campaign watchers are crediting his momentum to a shift to the center on key issues. Former President Bill Clinton even joked about the supposed move last week at a Democratic rally for President Barack Obama in Las Vegas.

"I thought, 'Wow, here's old Moderate Mitt,'" Clinton said, referencing Romney's performance in the first presidential debate, where the former governor of Massachusetts said he was against tax cuts for the wealthy. "'Where ya been, boy?'"

On Thursday, two days after the second presidential debate, the Associated Press chimed in, writing that Romney has moved to the center on a range of issues in a bid to win over on-the-fence voters in swing states. (Just last February, while battling through a hard-fought Republican primary, Romney described himself as a "severely conservative" politician.) And it noted the same areas in which other media outlets and pundits have said the shift is taking place: taxes, women's issues—and immigration.

But there's a hole in the argument: Immigration stakeholders on both the right and left say they have yet to see "Moderate Mitt" appear on this particular issue. In fact, Romney's immigration policies are regarded as some of the most conservative of the last half-dozen presidential cycles.

"If you're someone who favors robust enforcement of U.S. immigration laws, Romney is the best presidential candidate that you've had in decades," Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies told Yahoo News. (The center is a conservative think tank that advocates for reduced legal immigration and an end to illegal immigration.) "I would say that he has generally not etch-a-sketched [on the issue]," Camarota added.

Frank Sharry, the executive director of the liberal immigrant advocacy group America's Voice, tweeted after the second debate that Romney is "the most anti-immigrant candidate ever."

While Romney has shifted slightly away from the days of the primary—when he touted the endorsement of Kris Kobach, who drafted Arizona's law targeting illegal immigrants, and recalled firing "illegals" who had worked in his yard, through a contractor, in Belmont, Mass.—his comments on immigration during the town hall debate differed more in tone than substance.

On Tuesday night, Americans heard the candidates discuss their visions for the country's immigration system for the first time when an undecided voter asked what Romney would do "with immigrants without their green cards that are currently living here as productive members of society."

Romney first responded by slamming President Obama for failing to keep his promise to pass his version of immigration reform, which would have included a path to citizenship for many of the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants. The governor also praised America as a "nation of immigrants" and said he wants to increase high-skilled legal immigration.

But Romney went on to espouse views seen as anathema to earlier Republican presidential candidates, who were eager not to alienate Hispanic voters by seeming unwilling to even consider a path to citizenship.

"There are 4 million people who are waiting in line to get here legally. Those who've come here illegally take their place. So I will not grant amnesty to those who have come here illegally," Romney said, a position he also held in the primary.

The GOP challenger also defended his "self-deportation" policy that he introduced in the primary. It proposes that many of the nation's illegal immigrants will voluntarily leave the country if employers are forced to check immigration status, making mass deportations unnecessary. (At the debate, Obama characterized Romney's self-deportation policy as "making life so miserable on folks that they'll leave.")

The sole point that Romney appeared to drift center-ward on immigration turned out to be a case of misinterpreted wording. Romney said that military service should be "one way" for young illegal immigrants who were brought to the country by their parents to gain legal residency. This suggested that Romney was open to creating more routes to legal residency for these young people, such as attending college.

Such a position would put Romney closer in line with the Democrat-backed Dream Act, which would give citizenship to people under 30 who join the military or attend college, and which Romney has vowed to veto.

But a Romney aide told Yahoo News that the candidate still thinks military service should be the only route to permanent residency.

Romney's decision to stay the course on immigration is an interesting one, as top Republicans—including Romney—have warned that the party is "doomed" if it cannot attract the fast-growing demographic of Hispanic voters, who will make up 9 percent of the electorate this year.

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The Romney campaign is betting, then, that his economic message will be more important to this block of voters than its immigration one. Hispanic voters are by no means a homogenous or single-issue group, and polls show that, like most voters, they care most about the economy and jobs, with immigration trailing behind.

But Republican strategists stress that a hostile-sounding tone on immigration issues can alienate many Latino voters, no matter the candidate's economic platform. And a Latino Decisions poll shows that more than half of all Hispanic voters know at least one person who is undocumented, meaning the issue is personal.

The most recent Pew Hispanic Center poll has Romney picking up just 21 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared with 69 percent for Obama. (Romney is polling much better among Latinos in the swing state of Florida, however, where a strong Cuban-American presence tends to boost Republican candidates.)

George W. Bush picked up more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, while John McCain slipped to 31 percent in 2008. The downward trend is not good news for the GOP. But some conservatives argue that embracing legalization measures will not necessarily help Republicans reverse the downward slide. The New York Times' Ross Douthat writes that "a party's overall brand matters more than its stance on a single issue", and that embracing restrictionist policies doesn't mean forfeiting the Hispanic vote.

Romney seems willing to break from tradition. Republican President Ronald Reagan signed the first immigration reform bill in 1986, offering legalization to nearly 3 million people in the country. George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and John McCain—as well as their Democratic rivals—all supported legalization measures to some degree either while running for president or in office. Bob Dole, however, ran on a platform in 1996 that would have allowed public schools to deny entrance to children who couldn't prove their citizenship. (Dole voted for Reagan's legalization 10 years earlier.)

Matt Barreto, a pollster with Latino Decisions and a political science professor at the University of Washington, said he thinks Romney's performance in the debate is unlikely to gain him any ground with Latino voters.

"I thought with his answers on immigration he continued to dig himself into a hole," Baretto said. "He had a chance there to perhaps make some overtures." Barreto added that Romney's use of the phrase "undocumented illegals" to refer to young illegal immigrants "certainly isn't going to help him."