Democrats have been working hard to portray Mitt Romney as the most radical candidate on immigration in modern history. He has, they note, promised to veto the Dream Act, urged “self-deportation” and tapped the architect of the controversial Arizona and Alabama immigration laws as a campaign adviser.
Many observers are waiting for Romney to tamp down his immigration rhetoric as part of his pivot to the general election. But some immigration activists suggest he’ll take a slightly different tack: Instead of softening his stance to win over Latino voters, they expect Romney will simply try to disenchant them so they don’t vote for Obama.
Immigration “has always been a priority for the president he chooses to do nothing about,” Romney told supporters in Wisconsin on Monday.
He campaigned saying he was going to reform immigration laws and simplify and protect the border and so forth. Then, he had two years with a Democrat House and Democrat Senate, and a super majority in each house, and he did nothing. So let the immigrant community not forget that while he uses this as a political — as a political weapon, he does not take responsibility for fixing the problems we have.
Paul Ryan, on the trail with the former Massachusetts governor, followed Romney’s lead Monday, blaming Obama for not pushing reform. “This has to be something the president and the Congress makes a priority. This president has clearly not made it a priority,” Ryan said. “It’s a broken system, it doesn’t work for anybody. And we need to fix it so that we’re not finding ourselves having to go back every 10 years.” Neither Romney nor Ryan offered any details on how Republicans intend to fix it.
Last month, a Fox News Latino poll showed Romney and the rest of the GOP field doing abysmally with Latino voters, largely because of their stance on immigration. Rumor has it that Republicans in the Senate are crafting their own version of the DREAM Act in the wake of such harrowing poll numbers.
Romney’s attack on the administration doesn’t yet amount to a change in his own positions, though many Democrats believe that will come eventually. Given what Romney has stood for, to say Obama hasn’t done enough on immigration is “cynical in the extreme,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice. But, Sharry said, cynicism is precisely what Romney is aiming for.
If Romney can’t rally Latinos to his side, he can at least suppress their turnout for his opponent, Sharry said. That tactic was already used in the Nevada Senate race in 2010, Sharry said, when a front group began running Spanish-language ads saying that neither party cares about immigration reform, so voters shouldn’t support either candidate.
“We’ve been expecting this, to be honest” said Sharry, who predicted pro-Republican super PACs would pick up on the message in the coming months. “What this signals from Romney is, ‘Well, we can’t beat ‘em, so let’s try to keep ‘em from the polls,’” said Sharry. “They’re going to try to suppress Latino turnout. So, here we go.”
“Clearly Romney wants to tamp down enthusiasm among Latino voters,” agreed Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. But it’s not likely to work because of the strong positions Romney has taken on immigration, Noorani said. “They’re going to see what Romney told his Republican base, and that will only serve to increase enthusiasm among Latino voters,” Noorani said.
Lisa Navarrete, a spokesperson for the National Council of La Raza, remembered the tact from 2010, but said it’s premature to assume Romney is using it now after just one comment. “He didn’t say, ‘This hasn’t been done and I”m going to pass immigration reform,’” Navarrete said. Where Romney goes from here “is still to be determined” but Navarette predicted that with numerous voter ID laws being passed around the country, the strategy is likely to resurface in 2012.
The Romney campaign did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
Democrats seized on Romney’s line immediately. “Mitt Romney’s attempt to Etch-a-Sketch his record on immigration has begun. But his extreme positions on immigration can’t be erased,” Gabriela Domenzain, director of Hispanic press for the Obama campaign, said in a statement. Obama, Domenzain countered, “has made significant progress in implementing immigration policies that reward hard work and demand responsibility.”
But immigration reform activists admit that Obama has not been a godsend to their cause, either.
“This is a situation where there’s some truth to the message, but the messenger has absolutely no credibility,” said Sharry. “The failure to deliver on immigration reform and the record deportations are real liabilities, there’s no doubt about it.”
“This is politics,” says Petra Falcon, a life-long organizer and executive director of the group Promise Arizona, that is working to register Latinos in Arizona, on Romney’s latest comments. Will it work? “I don’t know,” Falcon said.
Watch Romney and Ryan talk immigration in Wisconsin:
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.