LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Mitt Romney offered a family-friendly approach to the nation’s immigration woes in his first general-election outreach to Latino voters, but the modest steps that he sketched underscored the political pull-and-tug the issue has become for the Republican presidential candidate.
His more moderate tone Thursday on a number of side issues contrasted with the tougher stance he took during the GOP primaries. Yet in outlining the path he would take as president, he declined to take on the larger and thornier problem of the 11 million men, women and children already in the country illegally.
Speaking to the same audience of Latino officials that President Obama will address Friday, Romney said he wouldn’t “settle for stop-gap measures” like the policy Obama announced last week to prevent the deportation of hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants. Instead, he said he would work with lawmakers of both parties to “build a long-term solution.”
“I will prioritize measures that strengthen legal immigration and make it more transparent and easier. And I will address the problem of illegal immigration in a civil and resolute manner,” he told the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “We may not always agree, but when I make a promise to you, I will keep it.”
But he offered no specific solutions to an issue that has thwarted the intentions of presidents since Ronald Reagan’s administration.
Romney accused Obama of taking the Latino vote for granted and criticized him for doing “nothing, nothing” to fix the larger problem. The administration’s new deportation policy is little more than a ploy by a politician “facing a tough reelection and trying to secure your vote,” he added.
The former governor said that Latinos “do have an alternative, and your vote is more important now than ever before.” Romney acknowledged the growing power of Latino voters in a backhanded way earlier this year, warning a private gathering of GOP donors that the current Democratic trend among Latino voters “spells doom” for Republicans, unless it is reversed.
Romney’s plan included expanding the availability of green cards for relatives of legal residents and highly educated foreign students, and offering potential citizenship to service members.
His 18-minute speech emphasized the economic damage that Latinos have suffered during Obama’s presidency and was received politely by members of the bipartisan — though predominantly Democratic — organization. The only discordant note was a loud “boo” — along with a smattering of applause — at Romney’s call for getting rid of Obama’s healthcare law.
Former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida drew a far more enthusiastic response from the same audience about an hour later. Bush, fluent in Spanish and a dark horse candidate to be Romney’s running mate, praised Romney as having given an “excellent speech.”
Romney “presented a much softer image than the image you saw in the campaign,” said Dario Mareno, a Florida International University political scientist. “Basically, I think the purpose here was to show that he is not a villain, to make him less scary to Latinos.”
Another conference participant, pollster Matt Barreto, said Romney had “cherry-picked the easiest things to put together” in his initial approach to Latinos.
“But there was a huge hole: What is his policy toward the 10 or 11 million undocumented immigrants who are here?” Barreto added. “It’s a start, but if that is all he does, this won’t do it.”
If elected, Romney would have to either suspend or continue Obama’s new deportation policy, estimated to affect between 800,000 and 1.4 million young illegal immigrants. In his remarks, the Republican said he would “replace and supersede” the president’s policy but offered no details.
During the primaries, when he ran to the right of his Republican rivals on immigration, Romney said those here illegally should “self-deport” and leave the country. He opposed the Dream Act, which would have given a path to citizenship to illegal immigrants in college or the military. And he backed tough anti-illegal-immigrant policies in Arizona.
On Thursday, Romney tweaked his position by announcing that, as president, he would ask Congress to speed the current process allowing families of permanent legal residents to unite “under one roof.” His proposal would exempt the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents from annual green-card limits, an advantage that only U.S. citizens enjoy now.
The former Massachusetts governor said his desire was to develop a policy that would “help promote strong families” and “not keep them apart.”
There is a waiting list of about 21/2 years for legal residents who want to resettle close relatives in the U.S., according to Madeleine Sumption of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. Between 80,000 and 90,000 applications are approved each year, she said.
Romney’s campaign said later that he also would raise limits on the number of immigrants from unspecified countries to improve the chances that “the best and brightest” could emigrate to the U.S. That would alter a policy that penalizes those attempting to emigrate from large countries like India and China, Sumption said.
Romney drew applause when he repeated his plans to offer a path to citizenship for immigrants who serve in theU.S. military— a narrow version of the Dream Act — and to “staple a green card” to the diplomas of foreign students who receive advanced degrees in the United States.
The Obama campaign, responding to Romney’s statement assuring Latinos that he keeps his promises, highlighted an earlier pledge to Republican primary voters in which he said that he would veto the Dream Act if it reached his desk. The measure has been blocked by congressional Republicans.
“After seven days of refusing to say whether or not he’d repeal the Obama administration’s immigration action that prevents young people who were brought here through no fault of their own as children from being deported, we should take him at his word that he will veto the Dream Act as president,” Obama campaign spokeswoman Gabriela Domenzain said in a statement.
Divisions within the Republican Party, which have prevented action on a comprehensive immigration overhaul, are also complicating Romney’s efforts to attract more Latino support. Conservatives have criticized him for not pushing back more aggressively against Obama’s new policy.
The president’s move is likely to help Democrats mobilize Latino voters, many of whom had been unhappy with the large number of deportations under the current administration and strongly favor the Dream Act. A flurry of new polls, conducted since Obama’s policy shift, showed that he has improved his already strong standing among Latino voters.
In Florida, the battleground state with the largest number of Latinos, the president has widened his edge over Romney by 8 percentage points among Latino voters, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday. It showed Obama with a 4-point overall lead against Romney, reversing a 6-point advantage for the Republican in a similar survey conducted last month.