Romney Debuts a Lighter Touch on Immigration

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Mitt Romney speaks at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials 29th Annual Conference on June 21, 2012 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida

Pare away the tough economic talk and the requisite condemnations of President Obama, and Mitt Romney’s Thursday address at a conference of Latino elected officials in Orlando was a softer moment for a candidate who spent much of the past two presidential-election cycles savaging his primary opponents on immigration. He didn’t denounce “magnets” for illegals like he did during his winter clashes with Rick Perry, or rail against “amnesty” as he did in 2008 while running against John McCain. Circumstances have forced Romney to recalibrate.

Well, not entirely. Romney’s central message was still a biting commentary on the economy, a topic he never leaves alone for long. The substance was fine-tuned for the audience but familiar. “Over 2 million more Hispanics are living in poverty today than the day President Obama took office,” he said. “Home values have plunged, our national debt is at record levels, and families are buried under higher prices for food and gasoline.” But the general election and Obama’s decision to make an end run around Congress by issuing an Executive Order last week that will stop deportations of young undocumented immigrants and issue them work permits forced Romney to respond on immigration in ways he previously hadn’t.

(MORE: Obama and Romney Finally Court Latinos — and Latin America)

“Some people have asked if I will let stand the President’s Executive Order,” Romney said. “The answer is that I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the President’s temporary measure.” That’s not really an answer, because it doesn’t make clear whether his permanent replacement would revoke the privileges granted to young undocumented immigrants by Obama — a relevant question even if you can’t really expect Romney to unveil a detailed plan for comprehensive immigration reform at this stage, let alone imagine the congressional coalition that would pass it. But he did offer specificity in other areas.

As he has in the past, Romney talked about making legal immigration easier, using employment verification as a tool to crack down on undocumented workers, and the need to issue more visas to highly skilled immigrants and green cards to those with advanced degrees. He also explicitly endorsed an idea he’s hinted at before: forgiving undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children if they serve in the military, granting them a path to residency and citizenship. (This is essentially one half of the DREAM Act, which Romney opposed. His website still says, “Mitt absolutely opposes any policy that would allow illegal immigrants to cut in line.”)

(MORE: Romney’s Dream Act Response Highlights Political Peril)

Romney’s newest idea, and the most interesting, was his proposal to streamline the approval process for spouses and children of legal permanent residents, and reallocate some green cards reserved for future applicants to those stuck in limbo. According to a State Department report from November 2011, in fiscal year 2012 there are 322,636 people in countries around the world awaiting approval to join legal permanent-resident family members in the U.S. Many others who are eligible already live here, according to Michele Waslin of the Immigration Policy Center, some of whom are undocumented and legally awaiting a change in status.

Reuniting separated families and rewarding honorable military service allows Romney to put a sympathetic face on his immigration reform policies and buys him some time before he goes into further detail on a comprehensive policy — one that needs to be much clearer about how he would deal with the 11 million undocumented immigrants who now live in the U.S. “I will address the problem of illegal immigration in a civil and resolute manner,” he said Thursday. Romney’s manner, at least, is clear.

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