Romney Speaks on Immigration, but Doesn't Answer the Question

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Badly boxed in, the Republican nominee has no recourse but to attack Obama's order on young illegal immigrants without proposing an alternative.

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Since the president announced last week that his administration will no longer seek to deport about 1 million young illegal immigrants, Mitt Romney has gone out of his way to avoid articulating a policy on the issue. His advisers even shut down a conference call with reporters rather than answer questions on the topic on Wednesday. On Thursday, he finally attempted to lay out a policy -- but still didn't answer the question of what he would propose to do with the millions of illegal immigrants currently living in the United States.

Romney's speech in Florida on Thursday to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials was billed as the rollout, at long last, of his immigration policy. He pledged to "redouble our efforts to secure the borders," to "reallocate Green Cards to those seeking to keep their families under one roof," and to "exempt from caps the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents." He pledged to create "a path to legal status for anyone who is willing to stand up and defend this great nation through military service." But on the fate of other illegal immigrants, including the youths now protected by Obama's executive order, he offered only a vague promise to do something. "Some people have asked if I will let stand the president's executive action," he said. "The answer is that I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president's temporary measure." What that solution would be, he didn't say.

"He had really some very good and well thought-out proposals to improve legal immigration," Ana Navarro, a Republican consultant in Florida who is active on Hispanic issues, said after hearing Romney's remarks. "But I'm afraid people also wanted to hear his proposal to deal with the undocumented already here and his permanent solution for DREAM Act kids. After this speech, I'm still left wondering exactly what those details are."

What Romney's speech did make clear was how he plans to attack Obama's action on immigration -- as a purely political election-year move made to placate a constituency he has otherwise neglected. "Last week, the president finally offered a temporary measure that he seems to think will be just enough to get him through the election," Romney said. "After three and a half years of putting every issue from loan guarantees for his donors to Cash for Clunkers before immigration, now the president has been seized by an overwhelming need to do what he could have done on Day One. I think you deserve better." Obama, he told the group, is "taking your vote for granted." Obama is scheduled to address the same group on Friday.

That Romney would seek to evade giving a straight answer isn't too surprising. Immigration is a no-win for him: Were he to suddenly come out in favor of giving some of the undocumented a way to achieve citizenship, he would have to explain what changed since the primary, when he said he'd veto the DREAM Act and decried rivals Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich for advocating "amnesty." A move to the middle on immigration would also annoy conservatives who agreed with those strict positions. Yet were he to reaffirm his former stances, Romney would risk alienating the large majority of voters who agree with Obama's immigration policy -- a Bloomberg poll this week found nearly two-thirds of likely voters supported it. (Bloomberg's pollster, J. Ann Selzer, told me that the Obama policy was favored by 36 percent of Republicans, 86 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of independents.)

Romney would also risk driving Hispanics, in particular, further from the Republican Party. That's something the GOP can't afford in the short or long term, as the Hispanic population continues to increase, with much of that growth coming in swing states such as Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia. And so Romney stands, paralyzed, between his promises to his base and the desires of the rest of the electorate.

Democrats know exactly how difficult a position they've put Romney in, and they are gleeful about it. Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, in an interview earlier this week, raved about the president's political maneuver on immigration, calling it "Clintonesque" and "a magnificent box to put the Republicans in. I just don't see how they recover with Latinos. He underlined all the empty promises of the Republicans in one swoop."

Republicans, too, see the danger for their party. Ken Blackwell, the conservative activist and former Ohio secretary of state, penned a memo that was obtained by the Daily Caller this week warning the GOP not to use immigration as the basis of aggressive attacks on the president. "We are in danger of alienating the Hispanic community over this," he wrote, drawing a parallel with the way the party lost blacks following their opposition to the Civil Rights Act:

Many GOP leaders argued that their vote against the Civil Rights Act was not a vote to maintain segregation, but only to protest federal usurpation of power. None of that had the slightest impact. They were depicted as hostile to civil rights. Their principled opposition was enough to alienate many black voters from the GOP.

Republicans, including Romney, know immigration is a minefield for them. What they don't know is how to get out of it.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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