Romney Charts Risky Course With Immigration Attacks

Romney Charts Risky Course With Immigration Attacks

“Amnesty is a magnet. People respond to incentives. And if you could become a permanent resident of the United States by coming here illegally, you’ll do so.”

-- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at the Nov. 22 CNN/Heritage/AEI debate blasting frontrunner Newt Gingrich’s plan to offer conditional residency for long-time illegal immigrants with deep ties to their communities.

“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.”

-- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney advancing a seemingly identical policy in a 2006 interview with Bloomberg News.

In his bid to lock up the Republican nomination in fast fashion, GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney is again flirting with hard-line immigration policies, a risky course that reflects Romney’s difficulty in straddling primary and general election campaigns.

While Romney scored easy points against rival Rick Perry for offering in-state college tuition to students who came to Texas illegally as children but who have applied for citizenship, his effort to paint Newt Gingrich as soft on immigration runs the risk of giving Democrats the chance to paint Romney as a xenophobe who plans to round up dark-skinned potential border jumpers.

But, as Romney learned when he pushed the issue against John McCain in 2008, illegal immigration has particular potency in Iowa where an influx of migrant workers in agricultural jobs – particularly in the meat-packing industry – have rankled voters.

Zapping Perry again and again on his Texas program was good politics since it went to the central grievance of many conservatives on illegal immigration: foreign nationals absorbing the benefits of a system they do not help fund. But Romney’s attack on Gingrich is broader.

Gingrich, true to form, has proposed a highly complex program by which local citizen panels, reminiscent of draft boards, would evaluate illegal aliens for their community ties and value as permanent citizens. Undesirable illegals would be put in a queue for deportation while the long-term residents with deep community ties would be allowed to stay. The program would still include the identification of every illegal immigrant in the country and would see millions of mostly Hispanic illegals return to their home countries to avoid registration.

By calling that plan “amnesty,” Romney is leaving himself very little running room on the issue. Five years ago, Romney opposed the idea of large-scale deportations of the more than 10 million immigrants in the country illegally. But, as campaign operatives from his 2008 run have said, Romney adopted a harder line on the subject after seeing the opportunity in the bitterness of many Iowans.

But it is a risky path for Romney, whose own father was born in Mexico.

Polls show that there is only one position on illegal immigration that is a sure-fire general-election loser for Republicans with Hispanic voters: any plan that involves mass arrests and deportations.

Hispanic voters might tolerate some primary-season tough talk about building a “danged fence” along the U.S.-Mexico border or even some discussion of increasing the enforcement of employment laws, but poll after poll shows that anything like dragnets for illegals are decidedly unacceptable among the fastest growing demographic bloc in American politics.

This matters a great deal because if President Obama repeats anything close to his showing with Hispanic voters, especially in Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina and Iowa, he is all but guaranteed re-election. Obama took 67 percent of the Latino vote in 2008, up from the 53 percent for John Kerry in 2004. The Hispanic share of the electorate has meanwhile continued to grow and may be nearly as large as the 13 percent that was comprised of black voters in the last election.

Conversely, if Republicans can limit Obama to less than 60 percent of the Hispanic vote and prevent Democrat-allied ethnic grievance groups from turning the election into a crusade against Anglo intolerance, it would be hard for Obama to plot a path to victory. The success of a rising crop of Latino GOP leaders in 2010 – Sen. Marco Rubio and Govs. Brian Sandoval and Susana Martinez – suggests that there is a way forward for the GOP with Hispanic voters. But it won’t be easy.

Consider Romney’s own support for a wall along the southern border. It helped Romney to bash Perry for the Texan’s opposition to a physical wall, but it has proven difficult to sustain. Herman Cain, who once supported a wall or an electrified fence, conceded that it would be impractical and Gingrich is closer to Perry’s position of military-style border security without erecting a physical barrier. Ron Paul also opposes a border wall.

Romney, though, stands with Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum as proponents of sealing off the southern border. Bachmann upped the ante on Romney by signing a pledge to build a double wall along the border (On either side of the Rio Grande? In the river?). It’s a tough contest for Romney to win since Bachmann and Santorum are all in on Iowa and not worried about having to run a national campaign.

In the almost seven months of GOP primary debates, many Republican voters who live in states without significant numbers of illegals or aren’t near the southern border have come to see the issue in a new light. Perry and Gingrich might have been disqualified for their views in 2008 amid outrage on the right over the “comprehensive” Bush approach, but suggestions of mass-deportations and 1,969-mile double walls now sound a bit over the top.

As the Obama campaign works hard to highlight Romney’s evolving positions on matters crucial to core conservatives – gun rights, elective abortions, bailouts, mandatory health insurance, etc. – the former Massachusetts governor finds himself dangling between two campaigns. He wants to be able to run against Obama as a moderate, but the same positions Team Romney believes will be helpful in the general could derail his primary bid.

Hence the attractiveness of returning to immigration as a cudgel against his opponents. Anything that sounds conservative but doesn’t involve any of his previous conservative apostasies would appeal to Romney. Of course, the revelation by Bloomberg News of Romney’s 2006 comments in support of a plan that sounds even more “humane” than the ones Gingrich and Perry have advanced could complicate things.

But so far, by using illegal immigration against his rivals, Romney has helped prevent conservatives from uniting behind one candidate. If he succeeds, though, Romney has left himself in need of another image makeover for the general election.

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on