Mr. Romney vs. Mr. Romney

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

MITT ROMNEY, struggling to revive his floundering candidacy and to stiff-arm a surging Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire's Republican presidential primary, has pushed his plan for dealing with illegal immigration to center stage. Unfortunately, it is no plan at all. That has become clear in recent days, and particularly at the GOP candidates' debate Saturday, when Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, contradicted himself repeatedly, as well as his own TV advertisements, while stumbling in rhetorical figure-eights around the immigration debate.

Mounting his attack on Mr. McCain, Mr. Romney has blanketed New Hampshire television stations with ads deriding as "amnesty" the senator's plan to provide an eventual pathway to legalization for America's 12 million undocumented immigrants -- the same plan he once called "reasonable." But in the debate Saturday, Mr. Romney twice said the McCain plan is not "technically" amnesty because it would sock undocumented immigrants with a $5,000 penalty if they wanted to remain in the country. He also denied that his own ads describe McCain's program as an "amnesty," which in fact they do. He then managed to double back on himself by asserting that "most people" would consider the McCain plan an amnesty.

In fact, Mr. Romney's approach is name-calling masquerading as policy debate. For as he made clear, he has not formulated a coherent approach to dealing with a central fact of the immigration problem: the 12 million undocumented foreigners already here. Challenging Mr. McCain on the 12 million, he asked: "Are they sent home? Are they sent home?" But minutes later, when Mr. Romney was asked by Charlie Gibson of ABC News whether it would really be practical to sweep up 12 million people and send them home, he answered with another couplet, this one more honest: "The answer is no. The answer is no."

Almost a quarter of the verbiage in the Republican debate Saturday was devoted to illegal immigration, which is saying something. But for the most part, Mr. Romney and his rivals are really saying something about only half the problem -- the prospective part. They tend to agree on tightening the border and cracking down on employers. But they skirt dealing with the 12 million, and with the economy's future demand for several hundred thousand more low-skilled workers annually, while suggesting that those already here can be hounded, harassed and wished away.

The facts are these: Twelve million illegal immigrants will not disappear, no matter what measures are taken at the border; 40 percent of them entered the country legally and overstayed their visas. Five percent of the American workforce is now undocumented. In certain sectors of the economy -- services, construction and especially agriculture -- they represent an even higher proportion of workers. Many of them are experienced and longtime employees; many pay taxes; some are in managerial positions; some have children who were born here and so are citizens. Screaming the word "amnesty" will not change any of that.

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