Why Romney's stance on immigration could cost him the White House

Mitt Romney’s rigid position on illegal immigration and embrace of Kris Kobach, former law professor and architect of a law to rid Arizona of illegal aliens, may well cost him the fall election even if helps him win the Republican nomination.

The United States has an unwritten but plain immigration policy.

The U.S. Border Patrol imposes significant risks on people trying to enter the country illegally but once inside, illegal immigrants usually can find work and remain here. They manage to obtain false documents or work off the books, and are significant shares of the workforce in agriculture, construction and many service activities.

States issue drivers licenses—which function as the primary form of identification in the United States—often with few or ineffective efforts to determine immigration status.

Americans of all stripes vote for immigration through their decisions about whom they hire to clean their homes and offices, the restaurants they patronize, and the complicity they tolerate from most state governments.

Some veil their choices by hiring cleaning services and caterers instead of housekeepers and cooks, but most participate in the fiction that has become U.S. immigration policy.

The reasons are simple. Whether Americans openly condemn or quietly condone illegal immigration, they are happy to have immigrants do the tough and often low-paying jobs native born Americans don’t like.

While federal authorities engage in well publicized raids of factories, workplace enforcement is far from comprehensive. Too many illegal immigrants work in small enterprises, as day laborers or in other fluid situations.

Moreover, federal agencies get precious little help from most state governments that enforce traffic laws, administer social services and admit the children of illegal workers into schools.

With widespread complicity by citizens and most state governments, U.S. immigration laws have about as much meaning as speed limits on highways. Some people get caught but most don’t.

However, the burden of illegal immigrants on law enforcement and budgets is perceived acute in several states, and with the Great Recession and persistent high unemployment exacerbating public safety and financial problems, several states are changing course.

Among other things, an Arizona Law enacted in 2010 would require police to determine individuals’ immigration status during lawful stops, detentions and arrests when there is reasonable suspicion that the individual is an illegal immigrant. A new law in Alabama requires school officials to record the legal status of students.

Recognizing that 12.2 million Hispanics are registered voters, and their support is critical to his reelection, the president has sought to block implementation of the Arizona law—Mr. Obama is calling its drive identification requirements profiling.

That’s a canard. The president has no problem with state troopers detaining individuals suspected of possessing illegal drugs or breaking other federal statutes during routine traffic stops. However, he is not interested in such meaningful help from state law enforcement in closing the border, because Hispanics, thought reliably Democratic, represent an important swing constituency in presidential elections.

In 2004, George W. Bush captured 44 percent of the Hispanic vote winning handily over John Kerry, but John McCain only gained 31 percent in 2008 and lost to Mr. Obama. Mr. Romney can’t win the White House without about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote.

It is easy to see how Mr. Romney’s endorsement of tough state enforcement of immigration laws inflames Hispanic voters. In Arizona, a driver legally in the country need only change lanes without signaling to be subject to a check of his immigration status—some discretion must be required if a well intentioned law is not to turn into abuse of civil liberties.

Moreover, Mr. Romney’s position deriding the proposed Dream Act is morally troubling. Supported by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, it would grant legal status to the children of illegal immigrants if they complete college or serve in the military. It would complement laws emerging in many states that grant in state tuition and other aid to such children.

Whatever the national immigration policy, individuals brought to America as children usually often no place to return. Many are Americanized, wholly unfamiliar with their country of origin and are innocent victims of someone else’s crime.

It may irk many that illegal immigrants brought here as children benefit from state sponsored higher education and may attain citizenship status, but forcing them to live in shadows, in constant fear of deportation to a strange country is simply wrong.

Regardless of the actions of their parents, they should be offered reasonable pathways to citizenship.

Peter Morici is a professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland School, and former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission.Follow him on Twitter @pmorici1.