Arizona Ruling Deepens Romney’s Immigration Muddle

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A funny thing happened after the Supreme Court handed down a split decision on Arizona’s controversial immigration law. All the key players won — even the ones who lost. Politics is a festival of spin on a typical day, and its worst tendencies were predictably unleashed on Monday by a complex ruling that was difficult to shoehorn into a press release. Everyone simply awarded themselves a victory; the discourse became the equivalent of a middle school athletic banquet.

President Obama pronounced himself “pleased” with the decision, though he expressed misgivings about the so-called “show me your papers” provision still in place. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who ignored the several aspects that were struck down, declared that the law had “unanimously been vindicated by the highest court in the land.” Former state senator Russell Pearce, the bill’s architect, said he was “very happy” to see “the most compelling piece,” Section 2(b), upheld. “The other sections were just icing on the cake. They were not critical,” he told Salon. Arizona Representative Trent Franks declared the decision “a victory both for the state of Arizona and for every state struggling under the burden of a federal government that is willingly and shamefully derelict in their duty to control border crime.”

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Unsupported assertions and hyperbole were just part of the story. The more interesting dynamic following the court’s decision was the scrupulous evasion from Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, which is caught between the hawkishness of the Republican Party’s conservative base and the political imperative not to alienate Latino voters. Shortly after the court’s ruling came down, Romney’s team blasted out a statement, reproduced below in full:

“Today’s decision underscores the need for a President who will lead on this critical issue and work in a bipartisan fashion to pursue a national immigration strategy. President Obama has failed to provide any leadership on immigration. This represents yet another broken promise by this President. I believe that each state has the duty — and the right — to secure our borders and preserve the rule of law, particularly when the federal government has failed to meet its responsibilities. As Candidate Obama, he promised to present an immigration plan during his first year in office. But 4 years later, we are still waiting.”

Finely woven gossamer, constructed to resemble an actual stance. It didn’t say whether Romney agreed or disagreed with the 5–3 majority, and it didn’t answer the lingering question of whether a Romney Administration would revoke Obama’s directive to stop deporting illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children — let alone how he might deal with the roughly 12 million people estimated to be living in the U.S. illegally. Pressed by reporters on these points, Romney’s traveling press secretary, Rick Gorka, got roped into an excruciating exchange, the full transcript of which is available here, courtesy of Politico. It underscores the campaign’s reluctance to stake out a fully developed position on an electrified issue that could sidetrack Romney from talking about the economy.

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At a private fundraiser in Arizona, of all places, Romney told Republican donors on Monday afternoon that he was disappointed in the court’s decision. “I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to the states, not less,” he said. “And the states, now under this decision, have less authority, less latitude, to enforce immigration law.”

The regulations have become “a muddle,” Romney said, because of Obama’s failure to implement a long-term solution to the immigration issue. As he did during a speech to a Latino group last week, Romney offered a vague pledge to coax Congress into a lasting solution on a complex issue. “In my first year, I will make sure we actually do take on immigration, we secure our border, we make sure that we grow legal immigration in a way that provides people here with skill and expertise that we want. This is an issue that has to be tackled. I will tackle it, not with stopgap measures but with the kind of work that’s done across the aisle by people of good faith,” he said.

The Obama campaign, sensing Romney’s desire to avoid a showdown over immigration, wants to make the Republican’s evasiveness an issue of its own. “I will always tell you where I stand. I will always tell you what I think, what I believe,” the President told a crowd gathered on Monday at a steamy high school gym in Durham, N.H.

Romney’s relationship to Arizona’s controversial immigration law was already fraught. Democrats seized on a remark made during a February debate in Arizona to suggest that Romney believed the law was “a model” for the rest of the nation. (In a way, it’s been exactly that, with several states passing laws patterned on Arizona’s. They, too, now sit in legal limbo.) A close look at the transcript, however, suggests that Romney was referring not to SB1070 but to Arizona’s e-verify law, which requires employers to check the legal status of workers. That law was upheld in the Supreme Court last year. Romney has outlined a few of what Republicans term “pro-legal immigration” policies, including hiking visa caps on highly skilled workers and granting permanent residency to workers with select advanced degrees. But for the most part, he has studiously skirted specifics.

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In the wake of Monday’s ruling, some proponents of stricter immigration policies argued that the e-verify law, and not SB1070, should be the centerpiece of enforcement efforts going forward, since it blunts undocumented immigrants’ ability to find a job, the primary factor driving them to the U.S. “We never felt 1070 was necessary for a state to really do most of what it could do,” says Roy Beck, founder of NumbersUSA, an immigration-reduction organization. “We never had a lot of eggs in this basket in the first place.”

As for Romney, “it’s pretty clear his handlers are trying to dance the fence, isn’t it?” Beck says. But he says Romney “hits almost every point” on illegal immigration nonetheless. “He says we should have mandatory e-verify at the federal level. He would not sue states that go their own way. He would finish the fence … His focus on taking away the jobs magnet has been perfect.”

Beck concedes that the ruling has produced a mixed response. “We’re all, for the most part, claiming victory, aren’t we?” he says, laughing. But in a press release, he offered a more upbeat assessment, proclaiming himself “pleased that the Supreme Court has upheld states’ inherent authority to assist the Federal government in enforcing immigration laws.”

Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti–illegal immigration group, released a statement calling the court’s ruling “an important victory for the people of Arizona and citizens everywhere who want their jobs, tax dollars and security protected from mass illegal immigration.” In an interview, however, he calls the decision “milquetoast” and blistered Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion for “throwing kerosene on the blaze.” Says Stein: “It doesn’t make any sense. It ignores 200 years of jurisprudence.”

Romney, Stein says, is “obviously taking a very cautious approach” to the issue. That’s understandable, he argues, when you’re facing a President whose “whole strategy has been to try to cynically bind the Latino vote to the Democratic Party for the next 50 years at the expense of good public policy.” Romney, we know, agrees that the President’s policies have failed. He’s happy to talk about that. His own positions are another story.

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