Thanks to President Obama’s dramatic new policy halting deportation for young illegal immigrations, Mitt Romney’s immigration hawks may be finally coming home to roost. Or they may quickly evolve into immigration doves. Nobody yet knows, since Romney has dodged the issue since Obama’s Friday announcement.
Romney’s position on Obama’s move should be obvious. There was no ambiguity about his immigration position during the primaries, when he aligned himself with far-right immigration adviser Kris Kobach and pledged to veto the DREAM Act, the stalled legislation that prompted Obama to act unilaterally last week. Romney proposed that by taking away illegal immigrants’ comforts and ability to work within the United States, they would “self deport.” Not only did Romney oppose the federal DREAM Act, he lit into Rick Perry for signing a watered-down state-level version in Texas, which provided in-state tuition to young illegal immigrants, a much less important benefit than the temporary legal status provided by Obama’s order.
“My friend Gov. Perry said that if you don’t agree with his position on giving that in-state tuition to illegals that you don’t have a heart,” Romney said last September. “I think if you’re opposed to illegal immigration it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a heart. It means you have a heart and a brain.”
But rather than flatly decrying the White House’s new policy as a reward for illegal behavior, as he did throughout the primaries, Romney has yet to explain what he’d do instead or even whether he’d reverse Obama’s orders.
“Well, let’s step back and look at the issue,” Romney said when asked directly on CBS’s “Face The Nation” on Sunday about whether the new rule would stand if he won the presidency. He said that “with regards to these kids who were brought in by their parents through no fault of their own, there needs to be a long-term solution so they know what their status is,” without ever offering any indication of what that long-term solution might be. Romney knocked Obama’s decision for making this “long-term solution” harder to negotiate through Congress. That leaves it up to Romney, who pledged to get it done himself — though he’s never revealed what the solution might look like.
In a wink to the moderate wing of the party on immigration, however, Romney has repeatedly praised Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) in recent days. The senator had been working on an unfinished, high-profile alternative to the DREAM Act that he hoped would attract Republican support, but his camp acknowledged they would be “re-evaluating” the legislation in light of Obama’s action. Romney’s immigration adviser Kobach has already warned that even the basic premise of Rubio’s unwritten bill is too liberal for him to support.
Speculation is swirling that Romney is plotting to ditch Kobach for Rubio’s lifeline with Latino voters, perhaps even by naming him as his running mate. But it won’t be easy to erase his previous immigration positions, which were unusually clear for the typically cautious Romney, both in tone and substance. In the meantime, his take on immigration is up in the air, with rhetorical nods to the center paired with a lack of any clear policy.
There will be plenty of chances for Democrats to needle Romney over his ambiguous response. Romney and Obama are scheduled to address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials this week on Thursday and Friday, respectively. While Romney has noticeably avoided bringing up immigration in front of Latino audiences, what was already the elephant in the room at similar events will be even bigger this week if he sidesteps the topic again.
Obama has an op-ed in TIME this week calling on Congress to take up the DREAM Act again, and a new poll shows Latino voters are extremely enthusiastic about his recent decision. The Supreme Court is also expected to rule soon on Arizona’s tough immigration law, a state whose approach Romney praised in the primary without ever fully embracing its legislation, thrusting another politically perilous issue before him where the temptation to abandon his previous rhetoric and positions could be great.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.