Mitt Romney’s Nuanced Evolution on Immigration

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It’s well known that Mitt Romney has changed his position on certain issues over time: cap-and-trade, abortion, gay rights, gun control. In all of these areas Romney toed (or leapt) rightward as he transitioned from the politics of blue Massachusetts to the national stage. But—beyond unceasing allegations of general flip-floppery—Romney is currently getting the most guff for his record on immigration, and his shifts on that issue are more nuanced.

Early campaigns: Immigration wasn’t a central point for Romney. When campaigning for governor in 2002, he listed positions on these issues as part of his platform: taxes, education, gay rights, abortion rights, minimum wage, gun control, capital punishment, housing, jobs, health care, crime, transportation, the environment. Immigration was absent, though clearly not for lack of being thorough.

2003: During his first year as governor, a Democratic state representative proposed a bill that would have allowed people to get a driver’s license by simply showing a taxpayer identification number (rather than providing a Social Security number), meaning that about 150,000 undocumented workers in Massachusetts could have become able to drive legally. Romney said he was undecided at first and, a week later, firmly opposed. “Those who are here illegally should not receive tacit support from our government that gives an indication of legitimacy,” he said.

2004: Romney rejected a proposal, like the one Texas Gov. Rick Perry supported, that would allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities. But he expressed ambivalence about it. “I hate the idea of in any way making it more difficult for kids, even those who are illegal aliens, to afford college in our state,” Romney said. “But equally, perhaps a little more than equally, I do not want to create an incentive to do something which is illegal.”

2005: The same bill came to his desk again. In an interview with Sean Hannity, Romney promised to veto it. “It comes down to whether or not we respect the law in this country or don’t,” he said. “Those who are here illegally have to recognize that they’re not welcome to receive the benefits that the state has to offer.” Romney also discussed immigration reform in general. “Amnesty is not the right approach. But we do have to look at the 11 million people who are here illegally today and say, ‘How are we going to deal with that population?’ … Ultimately, those individuals are going to have to find their way home or find a way to get themselves here legally.”

2005: The same month, in an interview with the Boston Globe, Romney discussed an immigration proposal put forward by Sen. John McCain that would have given many illegal immigrants in the United States a path to legally stay if they paid a fine and back taxes, didn’t get public benefits, and so on. Romney did not endorse the bill, but called it a “reasonable” proposal and said that some illegal immigrants “contribute in many cases to our economy and to our society.” He defined amnesty as “where you literally say, `OK, everybody here gets to stay,’” and said that amnesty was “very different” from what McCain proposed.

2006: Romney said the millions of illegal immigrants in America “are not going to be rounded up and box-carred out.” Meanwhile, according to the Globe, “after the Globe reported that some state contractors relied heavily on illegal workers, Romney sought federal permission to deputize state troopers to detain illegal immigrants they encountered on the job.”

2007: Touting an endorsement from Joe Arpaio, the hardline sheriff now defending Perry, Romney spoke out against the McCain proposal, saying it could result in “virtual amnesty.” The sheriff said he endorsed Romney because he approved of his stance on immigration. “If I could go around, I’d get my deputies arresting every illegal here and dump them and bring them back to Mexico,” Arpaio said. “It could be done, state by state.”

2007: Many media outlets have been quoting an interview from later that year as evidence of a flip-flop. True, Romney did say, “My view is that those 12 million who’ve come here illegally should be given the opportunity to sign up to stay here.” Crucially, the second half of that statement was this: “But they should not be given any advantage in becoming a permanent resident or citizen by virtue of simply coming here illegally.” In essence he said that just because someone came here illegally at first, that doesn’t mean he or she should be at a disadvantage in trying to legally immigrate.

2011: Fast forward to this campaign. Romney’s current plan is opposing such “incentives,” as he has done all along, and emphasizing the need for border security. He said this in a recent Fox News interview: “You know, there’s great interest on the part of some to talk about what we do with the 11 million … My interest is saying, let’s make sure that we secure the border, and we don’t do anything that talks about bringing in a new wave or attracting a new wave of people into the country illegally.” Newt Gingrich meanwhile proposes to let some illegal immigrants, who have settled here over a period of many years, take a path to permanent residency, though not full citizenship. Romney calls this “amnesty.”

It’s that word that seems to be at the center of Romney’s problems. Romney has always been against “amnesty.” On that he’s consistent. But his definition of what constitutes amnesty has changed. McCain’s proposal did not amount to amnesty, then it was going to lead to virtual amnesty, and now Gingrich’s only-for-some plan is straight-up amnesty.

Perhaps Romney is just being hyperbolic in hopes of undermining Gingrich, but in any case, the issue worth more of the media’s attention is Romney’s you-can’t-stay-here-but-I-don’t-know-how-to-make-you-leave stance. He has said it’s not economical or practical to go rounding illegal immigrants up Arpaio-style (though he does not appear to be against mass deportations on principle). But he’s also said that granting them leave to stay is tantamount to disrespecting America. And until he finds a solution that complements his objection, his attacks on Gingrich’s plan could boomerang back on him as others have in the past.