Arizona immigration law hearing puts Romney on spot
The Supreme Court hearing could challenge Romney, who is looking to moderate his tone on immigration.
The Supreme Court this week will take up Arizona’s controversial immigration crackdown law, a case that will put likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s position on the issue back in the spotlight.
The high court will hear arguments over the constitutionality of four central provisions of Arizona’s SB 1070 law just as Romney is beginning to pivot his rhetoric on immigration from the tough talk he used during the Republican primary to a more moderate tone as he turns his focus to President Obama and the general election.
Romney’s effort to better couch his rhetoric on immigration is part of his push to win back Latino voters, who back Obama more than two-to-one according to recent polls. While the former Massachusetts governor used the immigration issue — including the Arizona law — to outflank his opponents on the right during the primary, that appeared to alienate large swaths of Latino voters in the process.
But with the Arizona law resurfacing both this week and then in June, when the Supreme Court, is expected to rule on it, the immigration issue will be back on the front-burner, giving Obama and Democrats the chance to batter Romney with it regardless of the outcome.
Bob Quasius, president of the GOP pro-immigration reform group Cafe con Leche Republicans, said the hearing will “publicize” Romney’s past statements, which could interfere with his efforts to moderate his immigration rhetoric.
“Mitt Romney seems to recognize now he has an issue. His past positions … have seemed to hurt him,” Quasius, who supports Newt Gingrich, told Univision News. “Romney needs to pivot [to the center]. The question is whether he can do that once Obama fires up his $1 billion attack machine.”
The ex-governor has a long record of supportive statements about the law. He praised it during an Arizona town hall audience last September, saying, “Well, I support the Arizona law by recognizing what Arizona has done — underscored the failure of the federal government to do its job.”
He has also said on multiple occasions that the federal government should not block Arizona from enforcing the law.
“The right course for America is to drop these lawsuits against Arizona and other states that are trying to do the job Barack Obama isn’t doing,” he said during a February 22 debate in Mesa, Ariz.
And Democrats have played up a sound byte from that same debate from which they claim that Romney called SB 1070 a “model” for the nation.
“We now have a Republican nominee who said that the Arizona laws are a model for the country; that — and these are laws that potentially would allow someone to be stopped and picked up and asked where their citizenship papers are based on an assumption,” Obama told Univision in an interview last weekend. “Very troublesome, and this is something that the Republican nominee has said should be a model for the country.”
Romney’s campaign has pushed back on the claim that he backed the law as a national model, saying that he was only talking about the state’s mandatory E-Verify provision, which requires employers to check the immigration status of job applicants via an electronic government database.
“Gov. Romney supports the right of states to craft laws that assist the federal government in enforcing immigration laws, particularly when the federal government has failed in its duty to enforce those laws,” Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul told CNN in a statement intended to clarify the candidate’s position.
His aides do have a valid argument on that claim. Below is exactly what Romney said during the Feb. 22 debate in Mesa, when he was asked about the SB 1070 law. It’s unclear, at best, whether he was referring to the law as a “model” or just the separate E-Verify law.
“You know, I think you see a model in Arizona. They passed a law here that says that people who come here and try and find work, that the employer is required to look them up on E-Verify. This E-Verify system allows employers in Arizona to know who’s here legally and who’s not here legally,” he said. “And as a result of E-Verify being put in place, the number of people in Arizona that are here illegally has dropped by some 14 percent, where the national average has only gone down 7 percent.”
But at the same time, Romney has essentially endorsed the philosophical underpinning of the Arizona law as his immigration strategy: attrition by enforcement or “self-deportation” as it’s better known. It’s the theory advocated by Romney’s on-again, off-again unpaid immigration adviser, Kris Kobach, who helped author the framework of the Arizona law.
“The answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can 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,” Romney said when asked at a January debate about what he would do with the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. “And so we’re not going to round people up.”
The Arizona case comes just as Romney is trying to repair his image with Latino voters, who have the potential to play a decisive role in several key swing states this fall.
Though Latinos rank the economy, and not immigration, as their top concern, politicians in both parties acknowledge that Latinos interpret harsh immigration rhetoric as out of touch at best or culturally hostile at worst.
And for many Latinos, the 2010 debate over the Arizona represented that vitriol at its boiling point. Protests erupted in the state over the proposed law and some immigration advocates promoted a boycott of the state.
Scaled-down versions of those protests are expected in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. and in Arizona. Democrats also hope that Latino anger over the law will spur more to register to vote by the fall and turn traditionally-red Arizona into a competitive state.
In the past few weeks, Romney has tried to diffuse such a divisive debate over immigration.
His campaign has tried to distance itself from Kobach, a well-known bogeyman in Spanish-language and Latino media, and has expressed openness to supporting Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s pared-down DREAM Act, despite saying previously he would veto the current version. Romney is campaigning with the Cuban-American Rubio, a potential vice presidential nominee, in Pennsylvania Monday.
He’s also tried to steer the conversation surrounding Latino voters away from immigration and toward the economy, a subject he’s much more comfortable with.
Romney’s allies counter the notion that the Democrats’ aggressive push against the ex-governor on immigration has been effective, instead arguing it could backfire once more Latino voters tune into the back-and-forth of the campaign.
“If you disagree with President Obama’s approach on immigration, you’re called anti-immigrant,” Albert Martinez, an adviser to the Romney campaign, recently told Univision News. “A lot of people find that offensive.”
But Romney might have a tough time convincing enough Latino voters that he’s not the immigration hard liner he’s made out to be. That’s in part because there are still many voices in the GOP who are still playing by his primary script.
Former Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce (R), the ousted chief author of the SB 1070 law, will be in Washington one day before oral arguments begin to testify at a hearing on the law sponsored by Senate Democrats. Earlier this month, he provided fodder for Democrats when he commented on Romney’s position on his law.
“His immigration policy is identical to mine,” Pearce told the Washington Post. “Attrition by enforcement. It’s identical to mine – enforce the laws. We have good laws, just enforce them.”
Dee Dee Garcia Blase, an independent Latina activist who head the National Tequila Party movement, said that people like Pearce will act as a “millstone around Romney’s neck.”
“It’s a vote mover,” she said. “SB 1070 is going to wake up the Southwest.”