Democrats and liberal immigration advocates were quick to denounce Romney’s speech as a sign that he plans to hew closely to the wishes of the conservative Republican base when it comes to immigration.
“Any chance Mitt Romney had of substantially improving his standing with Latino voters in 2012 ended” with Thursday’s speech, said Simon Rosenberg, president of the liberal think tank NDN and an adviser to Democrats on the Hispanic vote. “He had a chance to start fresh, but chose to double down on a set of policies simply unacceptable to the vast majority of Latinos.”
Romney, who has staked out a hard-line stance against illegal immigration since his first presidential campaign in 2008, faces a steep political challenge. Democrats are armed with multiple video clips from Republican primary debates in which he hit his opponents for supporting measures such as charging in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants.
Moreover, Romney’s views on immigration have highlighted a potential divide between him and other Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who have supported finding a way to legalize students and college graduates in addition to those who serve in the military.
Other Republicans have criticized the tone of his past statements, saying he risks portraying the GOP as anti-Hispanic.
Romney appeared to directly answer those concerns on Thursday, while tweaking Obama. “I’m going to address the issue of illegal immigration in a civil and resolute manner,” he said. “We may not always agree, but when I make a promise to you, I will keep it.”
In the lead-up to his address, Romney sought to align himself more closely on the issue with Rubio, a Cuban American who many conservatives hope will be Romney’s running mate. His criticism of Obama’s deportation policy mirrored Rubio’s. And Rubio, asked by reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington hours before Romney’s address to analyze Romney’s approach on immigration, described him as a “very mature and serious political leader” seeking a balanced approach to a complicated issue.
One prominent GOP supporter of the Dream Act, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has called on the party to soften its tone on immigration, praised Romney’s speech.
“I was very pleased with it,” he said. “I heard a consistent message of border control, but I think he expanded it out to talk about reforming the immigration system itself.”
Attendees who listened to the speech gave the presumptive GOP nominee a mixed reaction as he spoke, highlighting the diverse views among Hispanic voters. Some booed Romney, and others applauded, when he pledged to repeal Obama’s health-care law; and Romney’s remarks on immigration reform in particular drew a range of reactions.
Some, such as Trini Lopez, the mayor of Socorro, Tex., expressed cautious optimism.
Lopez said that among the “enticing offers” to the Latino community Romney laid out on Thursday was his proposal to reform the work visa system. Even so, Lopez said, before he decides whom to vote for, he needs to hear personally from Obama, who will address the group on Friday.
Others, such as Phoenix City Councilman Daniel Valenzuela, voiced skepticism.
“If that message was heard a few months ago, it would mean more today,” he said of Romney’s advocacy for fixing immigration laws. “But if that message was heard a few months ago, he probably would not be the Republican nominee.”
Wallsten reported from Washington.