Blasting Gingrich’s views on immigration, Romney is fuzzy on how his differ

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent November 30, 2011

When Newt Gingrich proposed a “humane” approach to immigration in last week’s Republican debate, Mitt Romney pounced. Amnesty, he cried, claiming major disagreement with the former House speaker. Romney’s only problem is he can’t explain the disagreement.

That was evident when Romney was asked about immigration by Fox News anchor Bret Baier during an interview Tuesday. The interview showed how uncomfortable the former Massachusetts governor can be when pressed to say where he stands on issues where he’s changed his views. The immigration segment was particularly revealing.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

Romney struggled repeatedly but never provided a clear answer to the question of how he would treat illegal immigrants who have been in the United States for many years.

In the past, Romney has taken positions that sound exceedingly close to those Gingrich has articulated during this campaign. Gingrich’s view is that, for someone who has been here many years — a quarter-century, he said — and who has put down roots in a community, there should be some system for moving to permanent legal status short of citizenship.

Gingrich argues that, as a practical matter, it would not make sense to break up families and disrupt the lives of people who have integrated themselves fully into American society.

Four years ago, on NBC’s “Meet The Press,” Romney said this: “My view is that those 12 million who’ve come here illegally should be given the opportunity to sign up to stay here, but they should not be given any advantage in becoming a permanent resident or citizen by virtue of simply coming here illegally.”

Is that very different from what Gingrich said during the CNN/Heritage/AEI debate? Not really. In this Fox interview, Romney feigned ignorance of what, exactly, Gingrich has proposed. “I can’t tell you what Speaker Gingrich is saying,” he said.

That hasn’t stopped him from criticizing Gingrich. And on Fox, he mischaracterized his rival’s proposal by saying Gingrich seemed to be advocating a path to citizenship for longtime illegal immigrants. Gingrich has stopped short of that.

“My view is pretty straightforward,” Romney said, outlining a position similar to that of four years ago. “For those people who’ve come here illegally, they should have the opportunity to get in line with everybody else who wants to come into this country, but, they go to the back of the line and they should be given no special pathway to citizenship or permanent residency merely because they’ve come here illegally.”

Baier then asked the pertinent follow up: “The question is what you do with the 11 million plus people who are already here and how you handle them. And back in 2006-2007, you made a point in saying, we’re not going to round them all up and send them out.”

“That’s right, “Romney replied.

“So what do you do with them?” Baier asked.

Instead of answering the question, Romney ducked.“You know, there’s great interest on the part of some to talk about what we do with the 11 million,” he said. “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.”

Does that put him in a different place than Gingrich? Seemingly not. Gingrich’s full plan for immigration also calls for securing the border first and for a series of other steps. His call for a humane policy focuses on the practical question of what to do about those who are already here illegally. Some, he says, should be deported. But some should be allowed to stay.

Romney is saying essentially the same thing. He says no special favors for those here illegally. Perhaps he regards Gingrich’s “humane” standard a special favor. Gingrich regards it as practical.

So for Romney, the question is, on what basis would he decide who ultimately would remain and be given legal status? How would he start a process that would involve 11 million or so people? And if he wouldn’t round up people and try to send them back, how would he encourage them to return home to apply for legal status? Would he favor breaking up families with long-standing roots in the country?

Immigration is a flashpoint in the Republican presidential race. Romney saw Rick Perry falter on the issue in September by taking what might be regarded as a humane position on in-state tuition for Texas residents who are children of illegal immigrants. That might be why he punched so quickly at Gingrich on the issue.

But the more he tries to explain the difference, the less difference there seems to be.

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