Mitt Romney drew criticism from fellow Republican presidential candidates for immigration issues relating to his tenure as Massachusetts governor. But he's drawing more fire from Hispanic and Latino voters who say he's moved far to the right on immigration during the campaign.
Romney opposes the DREAM Act, comprehensive immigration reform and a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants living in the country. He supports Arizona's immigration law and was critical of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck some of it down.
"I believe that each state has the duty — and the right — to secure our borders and preserve the rule of law, particularly when the federal government has failed to meet its responsibilities," he said of the justices' decision in June.
In speaking to a group of Hispanics in June, Romney reaffirmed his opposition to the DREAM Act but said he would give more visas to highly skilled and educated foreigners.
""As president, I'd reallocate green cards to those seeking to keep their families under one roof. And we will exempt from caps the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents. And we will eliminate other forms of bureaucratic red tape that keep families from being together," he said. "...And if you get an advanced degree here, we want you to stay here. So I'd staple a green card to the diploma of someone who gets an advanced degree in America."
Tough Talk the Tea Party Likes To Hear
Romney also has toughened his rhetoric about controlling the Mexican border and increasing deportations, while softening rhetoric about states that write their own immigration laws. The risk for Romney is that he won over some Tea Party voters to get the nomination at the expense of losing Hispanics in the general election.
During the 2011 primaries, Texas Gov. Rick Perry criticized Romney as a governor who hired a landscaping firm that used undocumented workers and who signed a health care reform law that allowed illegal immigrants to receive treatment. Romney has dismissed both assertions as politically motivated distortions.
Five years ago, the Boston Globe first reported the story about Romney’s use of illegal workers to cut his lawn. Two different companies ultimately were implicated, one in 2006 and another in 2007. Romney said he had no knowledge of the workers’ immigration status and fired both companies as soon as he learned the employees were undocumented.
Romney, who was mounting a campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, said he told one of the companies, “We can’t have any illegal workers on our property. I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake.”
On health care, Romney argues that his reform law did not draw illegal immigrants to Massachusetts, as Perry and others have charged. He says that, under existing law, hospitals had to provide treatment for people regardless of their immigration status anyway.
And he notes that there ultimately are higher costs for denying sick people care that get passed on to everyone, so denial is no bargain. Romney has said the intent of the program was never to provide subsidized care for undocumented immigrants, and he says that if that’s what’s happening now, it’s the fault of his successor (Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick) who implemented the program.
Massachusetts does not record data on the immigration status people in the health care system, so it’s impossible to know exactly what the cost of undocumented patients is.
Romney has aggressively defended his record as governor. In a 2008 debate in St. Petersburg, Fla., he said: “Let me tell you what I did as governor. I said no to driver’s licenses for illegals. I said, number two, we’re going to make sure that those that come here don’t get a tuition break in our schools, which I disagree with other folks on that one. Number three, I applied to have our state police enforce the immigration laws in May, seven months before I was out of office.”
Favors Building Border Fence
In 2011 debates, Romney has supported building a fence along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. He wants to crack down on illegal workers in the workplace, and he opposes the DREAM Act, which would allow the children of undocumented immigrants to pay lower college tuition rates. He opposes comprehensive reform plans that include opportunities for legal residency for those who came here illegally.
“Of course we build a fence, of course we don’t give tuition credits to people who come here illegally,” he said during a September debate.
“I very firmly believe that we have to make sure that we enforce our borders,” Romney has said, “that we have an employment verification system, and that those who have come here illegally do not get an advantage to become permanent residents, they do not get a special pathway.”
For the most part, Romney has supported states that have written their own immigration enforcement laws in recent years, among them Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Arizona. He has rejected the criticism of those who argue that these laws inevitably lead to racial profiling and are inherently anti-immigrant and anti-Latino.
Agreeing with supporters in the business community, Romney favors immigration policy that does more to attract highly educated and highly skilled workers from around the world.
“I like H1-B visas,” he says. “I like the idea of the best and brightest in the world coming here. I’d rather have them come here permanently that come and go, but I believe our visa program is designed to help us solve gaps in our employment pool.”
Romney has often said during the campaign that Republicans should be “the party of opportunity and also the party of legal, law-abiding citizens,” when it comes to immigration.
A Change in Positions on Mass Deportation
Romney criticized Republican rival Newt Gingrich for suggesting that some limited amnesty might be necessary to deal with the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. But Gingrich and others pointed out that Romney expressed a similar opinion years ago.
In a 2006 interview, Romney said it wasn’t feasible for the large undocumented population to be “rounded up and box-carred out.” He called for the government to sort out the law-abiding undocumented immigrants who have learned English and let them get in line for permanent residency.
“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 interview session. Romney’s rivals said he changed his position several years ago after hearing the intensity of anti-immigration sentiments in Iowa.
He now believes undocumented residents should be deported.