Neither party has the high ground in the immigration debate in this election. President Obama never put forth a comprehensive immigration reform plan, preferring to demagogue the issue. Mitt Romney spent the primary knocking his opponents with a more lenient stance (e.g. Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s tuition policy, Newt Gingrich’s idea for local immigration boards). As a result, neither is going to score a lot of points, I would predict, on the immigration issue.

What we saw yesterday was typical of what we can expect. The National Journal reports:

In a pitch aimed at the nation’s growing pool of Hispanic voters, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney attacked President Obama today for failing to fix the nation’s broken immigration system. He said that as president he would allow immigrants with advanced college degrees to stay in the country. . . .

Gabriela Domenzain, a spokesman for the Obama reelection campaign, said, “Mitt Romney’s attempt to Etch A Sketch his record on immigration has begun. But his extreme positions on immigration can’t be erased. He has campaigned with the nation’s leading anti-immigrant voices, promised to veto the DREAM Act, and wants to encourage all undocumented immigrants to self-deport. He would have the most extreme immigration platform of any presidential nominee in recent history.”

Obama will no doubt play into the class and ethnic grievance-mongering that is consistent with his stance toward Democratic constituent groups (e.g. the GOP is for rich people, the GOP is the white guys’ party).

So what, if anything, can Romney do to attract Hispanic voters? There are a handful of ways to do so, without muddying his own position or being accused of flip-flopping.

First and foremost, Romney will need to make the Republican case to Hispanics on everything from taxes to school choice to abortion. Like any other voters, Hispanics want to hear what Romney’s got for them. As he has said, the other guy is going to give away free stuff. But Romney can be, for example, the candidate of small business and upward mobility. That means going to Hispanic communities and explaining the GOP message. That is how Govs. Susana Martinez and Brian Sandoval won in states with large Hispanic populations.

Second, Romney needs to talk more about legal immigration. He has made and should reiterate a pitch for extending the legal status for immigrants with advanced degrees to remain in the United States. Romney objected to the DREAM Act, but he should make clear he does favor legalizing those who serve in the military. He should affirm his support for legal immigration and differentiate himself from immigration exclusionists by making clear his belief that immigrants are a net benefit to America.

Third, he should stress the degree to which he would repair and deepen ties to Central and South America. In taking the side of Hugo Chavez’s puppet in Honduras and inexcusably delaying ratification of the Colombia free-trade deal, Obama has continually undercut pro-democratic forces in our hemisphere. Romney should pledge to broaden economic relations and make clear we stand on the side of human rights, democracy and religious freedom, and not with the Castros and Chavez.

Fourth, Romney would be wise to make school choice a central focus of a pro-upward mobility agenda. The attempt by the president and Democratic Congress to kill the D.C. school voucher program is emblematic of their willingness to sacrifice inner-city, largely minority kids’ education for the sake of mollifying Democratic patrons in the teachers unions.

Fifth, while stressing that he believes in secure borders and employer-verification programs, Romney should explain why he does, namely out of concern for national security, respect for our laws and a desire not to undercut legal immigrants trying to play by the rules. He would lose nothing by saying that once immigration reform has reduced illegal immigration (the weak economy has done that to large extent), we will need to have a civil discussion about the legal status of those who remain. Frankly, since Obama has put forth nothing specific, Romney may not be obliged to offer many details.

In sum, Romney would do well to: 1) remind Hispanics that Obama has played them like a fiddle, dangling the promise of comprehensive immigration reform and delivering nothing; 2) emphasize Republicans’ support for legal immigration and policies advancing upward mobility; and 3) not allow himself to be played as indifferent to or hostile toward Hispanics or immigrants more generally. In truth, a group with high unemployment and pro-life views should be amenable to a Republican message. Romney has to deliver it and deliver it in a way that is true to conservative values.