NALEO Conference: Romney softens tone on immigration, slams Obama
Romney gave a laundry list of ways he would reform the nation’s immigration system, but ducked whether he would undo President Obama’s new policy.
By JORDAN FABIAN
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Thursday outlined his immigration stance while delivering a withering criticism of President Obama’s treatment of the Latino community during his first term.
Speaking before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), Romney adopted a more pro-immigrant tone than he did during the GOP primary campaign and said his policies as president would strive to keep immigrant families together.
But he also left several questions unanswered, such as how he would handle Obama’s new policy temporarily halting deportation for young undocumented immigrants. He also declined to address how he would handle the 11 million-plus undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
“I will work with Republicans and Democrats to build a long-term solution,” Romney told the audience. “I will prioritize efforts that strengthen legal immigration and make it more transparent and easier. And I will address the problem of illegal immigration in a civil but resolute manner. We may not always agree, but when I make a promise to you, I will keep it.”
Romney slammed Obama for waiting until an election year to address the plight of undocumented youth through his executive action, calling it a politically-motivated, stop-gap measure.
“He did nothing to advance a permanent fix for our broken immigration system. Instead, he failed to act until facing a tough reelection and trying to secure your vote,” Romney said of the president.
But he was again vague about whether he would repeal Obama’s decision on young immigrants and how he would address DREAM Act-eligible youth during his presidency.
“Some people have asked if I will let stand the president’s executive order, [sic]” 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.”
Romney’s speech was his most anticipated address to Latino voters, a crucial voting bloc, to date and an attempt to re-brand his image on the lightning-rod issue of immigration.
“The governor during the primary established parameters that people thought were very tough as to how he would handle the issue,” José Fuentes, a Latino co-chairman of Romney’s campaign, told Univision News.” What he’s now explaining is that, within those pillars he set during the primary, ‘this is what I would be doing.’”
The former Massachusetts governor has come under intense pressure to comprehensively outline his immigration policy in response to Obama’s decision to halt deportations for between 800,000 to 1.4 million young undocumented people seeking a higher education or military service, which appeared to boost his standing with Latinos, who largely favor a more accommodating immigration strategy.
Although immigration ranks below the economy and education among concerns for Latino voters, it has served as the primary source of tension between many Latino voters and Romney.
“He was able to bring together a laundry list of items on immigration where he was able to buttress a previous image that he was extremely anti-immigrant. So, I think he started to repair that image, this is just the first step though,” said Matt Barreto, a pollster with Latino Decisions, a firm that specializes in surveying Latino voters.
And since the GOP primary, Romney has downplayed the issue of immigration in favor of the economy in addressing Latino groups and voters.
The bulk of Romney’s speech centered on his economic message that Obama’s policies have made Latinos worse off than they were four years ago. The former Massachusetts governor cited statistics, such as the 11 percent unemployment rate among Latinos and the 13.2 million Latinos living in poverty (in 2010), in arguing that Obama doesn’t deserve a second term.
“Hispanics have been hit disproportionately hard …The middle class has been crushed under President Obama,” he said. “And yet our president says the private sector is doing fine. This is more than a policy failure; it is a moral failure.”
On a litany of issues, Romney said, President Obama has let down Latinos. Before the president addresses the group on Friday, Romney implored attendees to consider his candidacy as an alternative.
“He’s taking your vote for granted,” Romney said of Obama. “I’ve come here today with a simple message: You do have an alternative. Your vote should be respected. And your voice is more important now than ever before.”
But immigration has loomed like an 800-pound gorilla in the room and has served as a barrier to entry for Romney’s search for Latino votes.
Romney’s rhetoric Thursday marked a significant shift from the stance he took in the Republican primary, when he adopted a get-tough platform as he attempted to sell conservatives on his candidacy.
The candidate’s speech came nearly six months to the day when Romney, in a debate down the road in Tampa, backed “self-deportation” as his strategy for ridding the nation of undocumented immigrants via strict enforcement measures. He also vowed to veto the DREAM Act, which is overwhelmingly popular among Latinos.
“Today, Mitt Romney told the largest national gathering of Hispanic elected officials: ‘When I make a promise to you - I will keep it.’ But in front of an audience of Republican primary voters, he called the DREAM Act a ‘handout’ and promised to veto it,” said Obama spokesperson Gabriela Domenzain.
“Now, after seven days of refusing to say whether or not he’d repeal the Obama administration’s immigration action that prevents young people who were brought here through no fault of their own as children from being deported, we should take him at his word that he will veto the DREAM Act as president,” she added.
Romney, who trails Obama by around 40 points among Latino voters in most polls, acknowledged his problems in April, telling a private gathering of donors that the GOP’s poor standing with Latinos “spells doom for us” and since that he has attempted to change his tune.
In his speech, Romney touted the fact he supports a path to legal status for undocumented youth who serve in the military, part of those who would be impacted by the DREAM Act, and reiterated he would automatically grant green cards to immigrants who earn advanced degrees. He said he would increase visas for highly-skilled immigrants and temporary visas for agricultural workers.
He also unveiled a new proposal designed to keep immigrant families together, a major concern for Latino immigrants. His plan, which was only outlined in broad strokes, would exempt from visa caps spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents who want to move to the United States and he would reallocate green cards to families seeking to live together in the U.S. He did not say how he would address families containing undocumented members.
“Our immigration system should help promote strong families, not keep them apart. Our nation benefits when moms and dads and their kids are all living together under the same roof,” Romney said, in one of the few times he drew applause from the audience.
But Romney didn’t shy away from mentioning some of the tough enforcement measures he adopted during the primary, such as a border fence and mandating businesses adopt a system to electronically verify of employees immigration status. Romney, however, spent much less time speaking about that subject than he did discussing his plan to expand legal immigration.
“He hasn’t varied his position,” said Fuentes.
Immigration reform groups said Romney’s speech fell short of the type of plan they were looking for Romney to adopt.
“At his NALEO speech, Mitt Romney fell short. American voters want — and the Republican Party needs — visionary plans to fix the immigration system, not tweaks around the margin where the only path to legal status for grandmothers is to enlist in the military,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “For the leader of the Republican Party to ignore his Senate colleagues’ obstructions to the DREAM Act in 2010 is revisionist history.”
Barreto noted that Romney did not explain how he would overcome the deadlock in Congress over immigration issues and failed to specify how he would handle the full scope of DREAM Act-eligible youth, including those who want to attend college, other than saying he favors a long-term solution.
“He’s still going to have a lot of explaining on the DREAM announcement, he still did not answer that. That’s the biggest hole in the speech today,” Barreto said. “I think there was a lot of room for him to position himself as the compassionate conservative as Bush did, but he missed that opportunity today.”
(Photo: Flickr, NALEO Educational Fund)