Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who charged Republican presidential primary rival Newt Gingrich with proposing “amnesty” for certain illegal immigrants, took a nearly identical position in a 2006 Bloomberg interview, saying some foreigners who entered the U.S. illegally should be allowed to remain and gain legal status.
Romney, who at the time hadn’t yet declared his first presidential candidacy for 2008, told reporters and editors in Bloomberg News’s Washington bureau that the 11 million immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally “are not going to be rounded up and box-carred out.” Law-abiding people who pay taxes, learn English and don’t rely on government benefits should be allowed to “get in line” to apply for citizenship, he said.
“We need to begin a process of registering those people, some being returned, and some beginning the process of applying for citizenship and establishing legal status,” Romney said during the March 29, 2006, session.
The comments contrast with the position Romney took last week when he challenged Gingrich’s assertion during a televised debate that the U.S. should have a “humane” immigration policy that allows some people who entered the country illegally long ago, have no criminal record, and have family, civic and religious ties to stay and get legal status. Romney called the approach “amnesty” and a magnet for illegality.
Not ‘Moving Them Out’
In 2006, Romney said regarding undocumented immigrants in this country: “We’re not going to go through a process of tracking them all down and moving them out.”
He suggested that some could stay and pursue legal status while others are deported. “We should have those individuals who are here illegally begin a process either of returning to their homes -- particularly those that are unable to be here without government support or those who are involved in crime --or beginning a process of registering for a citizenship, applying for citizenship and then carrying out the process necessary to get there,” Romney said.
While Romney and his campaign say there has been no change in his position on immigration, some strategists close to him say Romney did switch stances in 2007, after traveling to Iowa and hearing the depth of anti-immigration sentiment there. The chief of Romney’s 2008 Iowa campaign, Doug Gross, called the shift a direct result of Romney grasping the “political implications” of his immigration stance.
Rift Over Immigration
Last week’s exchange between Romney and Gingrich highlighted Republican rifts over immigration, an issue that can drive votes in the early contest states. Bloomberg News polls conducted Nov. 10-12 found that more than one-third of likely Republican caucus and primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire said illegal immigration was a “critical” factor as they evaluated the presidential candidates. In Iowa, 73 percent said the issue was “critical” or “important,” about the same as in New Hampshire, where 72 percent said so.
Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker from Georgia whose recent poll surge has him competing with Romney for front-runner status, bucked what has become Republican orthodoxy on the issue and said he was “prepared to take the heat” for doing so.
“If you’ve come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home, period. If you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out,” Gingrich said.
Amnesty an Incentive
“Amnesty is a magnet,” Romney said during the Nov. 22 foreign-policy debate in Washington. “People respond to incentives. And if you could become a permanent resident of the United States by coming here illegally, you’ll do so.”
Lanhee Chen, Romney’s policy director, said Romney “believes that illegal immigrants who apply for legal status should not be given any advantage over those who are following the law and waiting their turn.” In a statement to Bloomberg News, Chen said Romney “absolutely opposes” allowing illegal immigrants “to cut in line.”
Gingrich’s campaign said Romney was trying to obfuscate his stance on immigration.
“Intentionally misleading the same people you’re running to lead and represent isn’t exactly the best quality for the next leader of the free world,” said R.C. Hammond, a Gingrich spokesman. “Newt is being forthright on this. We refer to it as leadership, and we think it’s what voters are actually looking for.”
In a 2006 interview with the Boston Globe, Romney backed the approach in legislation crafted by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and the late Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts that would have created a path to legal status for illegal immigrants. Then-President George W. Bush, a Republican, also championed the approach.
After Romney detected the potency of the issue in Iowa, he changed course and began criticizing McCain during the 2008 presidential primary for pressing such a plan, one strategist close to his campaign said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid publicly disputing the candidate.
Gross of Iowa, who was chairman of Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign in the state and is neutral this year, gave the same account. “Four years ago, you were coming right off the defeat of the Bush bill that people called amnesty, so a lot of the Republican base was red-hot over the issue -- it came up at every event here,” Gross said.
Romney’s decision to attack McCain on immigration, he added, “was in direct contrast to a lot of the statements he had made. He sensed the political implications of it, and that’s why he was doing it.”
Gross said he counseled Romney’s aides at the time against making a tough anti-immigration stance a central theme of his campaign. “I thought it would make him look like he was flip-flopping and sort of feed the narrative that he would do or say anything to get elected,” Gross said.
Gingrich revived that story line by taking to the social networking Web site Twitter last week to post a clip of a 2007 television interview in which Romney said illegal immigrants should be allowed to sign up for legal status.
Romney told Iowa voters during a Nov. 23 telephone call organized by his campaign that he has always believed that illegal immigrants should be sent back to their countries of origin to apply for such status. “I just don’t think that those who have come here illegally should be given a special pathway, a special deal,” Romney told a voter who questioned him on the issue.
Another Immigration Skirmish
The Romney and Gingrich skirmish isn’t the first time the immigration issue has flared during the 2012 primary.
Texas Governor Rick Perry sparked a backlash among Republican activists when he said during a Sept. 22 debate that those who opposed allowing children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates -- a policy he has championed as governor -- didn’t “have a heart.” His opponents, particularly Romney, criticized him for the statement, and he ultimately retracted it. Perry still hasn’t recovered from his drop in the polls following that episode and other debate gaffes.
A Bloomberg News poll released Nov. 15 found that 42 percent of likely Iowa Republican caucus attendees said past support for a law like the one Perry signed allowing in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants would be a disqualifier for a presidential candidate. In New Hampshire, 51 percent said it would be grounds for ruling out a candidate.
Gross said while Romney likely benefited from his strong criticism of Perry on that issue, he faces risks in making a hard-line stance on immigration a hallmark of his campaign given that jobs and the economy are the defining issues on voters’ minds.
“What he needs to be careful about is, 2012 is not 2008. Immigration and social issues are not the defining issues for Republican caucus-goers,” Gross said. “To the extent that he appears to pander on immigration issues, I think it will hurt.”