Mitt Romney has had a lot to say about immigration over the past few days, but what he has said adds up to a giant question mark. Rarely has a presidential candidate had as many opportunities to clarify or recalibrate his position on a vital issue, and rarely has a candidate passed up those opportunities as consistently as the former governor.
It’s not that Romney has mostly avoided talking about immigration during the campaign. When it has been in his political interest, he has been more than happy to state his views. He took on the issue repeatedly during the Republican primaries, using it as a cudgel to attack Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and at a critical moment in his fight against former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.).
When Perry appeared to be a threat, Romney was eager to blast the governor’s support of a long-standing Texas law that allows residents who are the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges and universities.
“It makes no sense,” Romney said.
When Gingrich outlined a conciliatory approach to dealing with undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for a quarter-century or longer — a policy that would have provided legal status but not a path to citizenship — Romney attacked him, saying that any such policy would be a magnet for more illegal immigrants. He called Gingrich’s idea “a form of amnesty.”
When Romney debated in Arizona and desperately needed to defeat Santorum there and in Michigan, he appeared to say that Arizona’s hard-line approach to immigration — including the law that the Supreme Court mostly struck down on Tuesday — was a model for the nation. (The court upheld the legislation’s most contested provision, which requires law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of people they detain and suspect to be illegal immigrants.)
Called on it by reporters, his campaign said at the time that, no, Romney didn’t say the Arizona law before the courts was a model for the nation. They said he was talking about the state’s e-verify law for businesses dealing with applicants who might lack documentation, campaign officials said. Exactly what the candidate thought of the strict anti-immigration law was left to the imagination, though he did win the endorsement of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) before the primary.
Romney has long opposed a comprehensive immigration reform policy that would include a path to citizenship for the roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States other than making them return to their native countries and get in line. During one debate, he famously described this policy as “self-deportation.” He has been consistent on this through both of his campaigns for the White House.
That brings us to the past two weeks, when the former governor went fuzzy in public on immigration. It began when President Obama, in a move that was as political as it was substantive, issued an order that halted the deportation of illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children if they met certain criteria.