After a self-imposed exile in La Jolla, Mitt Romney re-emerged last week to find the political landscape unrecognizable from the one he left in November — and nowhere more than on immigration.
Romney torpedoed his party’s already slim chances at winning the Latino vote after he advocated “self-deportation,” brought the architect of Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigration on as a key advisor, and attacked his rivals for showing even mild compassion towards undocumented teenagers.
One of Romney’s advisers claimed vindication after Jeb Bush, long the face of the party’s pro-immigration wing, came out with a surprisingly conservative plan on Monday that abandoned his past support for a pathway to citizenship. But the derision Bush received from even fellow Republicans for his watered-down plan really shows how far the goalposts have moved since Romney’s defeat in November.
Like a political fossil, Romney is a valuable research tool in helping reconstruct the conventional wisdom on immigration within the GOP pre-November 2012. Things have moved so fast that it’s worth pausing to take a look at what the former nominee, who reiterated his opposition to legalizing the 11 million strong undocumented population on Fox over the weekend, actually advocated and where the party has moved since.
Here’s where Romney stood on a few of the biggest hot-button immigration issues as a candidate — and where Republicans stand now.
A Path To Citizenship
Mitt Romney: No mystery here. Romney was against citizenship for illegal immigrants, period.
The GOP Today: Republican lawmakers, including rising star Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), are working on a bipartisan bill in the Senate that explicitly embraces a path to citizenship. Romney’s own running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) has encouraged similar talks in the House and, while they’re still ongoing, he’s made it clear he’s pro-citizenship regardless of what they produce. The guy who ran Romney’s Latino outreach in 2012 is funding a major campaign to get the whole thing passed. Romney’s best friend in the press, the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, is attacking Jeb Bush for even considering anything less. Even some anti-immigrant activists say that if a reform bill passes, they’d prefer it include citizenship rather than some muddier alternative.
Legal Status For Undocumented Immigrants
Mitt Romney: Here’s where comparisons to Jeb Bush break down. Romney wasn’t just against citizenship for illegal immigrants, he was against any kind of provisional legal status that would let them remain in the country long term, full stop.
“Illegal immigrants who apply for legal status should not be given any advantage over those who are following the law and waiting their turn,” Romney’s website stated. “Mitt absolutely opposes any policy that would allow illegal immigrants to ‘cut in line.’”
The heading for that section of the site read “Oppose Amnesty” early in the general election. By election eve, as Romney tried to tack to the center with vague promises of a comprehensive reform plan, it was “Address The 11 Million Illegal Immigrants In America In A Civil and Resolute Manner That Respects the Rule of Law.”
The GOP Today: The absolute floor for comprehensive immigration reform at this point is legal status for undocumented immigrants who pass a criminal background check, and activists say they’re likely to reject a bill if it comes to that. House Republicans skeptical of a path to citizenship often float legal status as an alternative, but even some of them are leaving wiggle room for a citizenship bill. Same with Bush, who is already hinting he might return to his old pro-citizenship position.
Mitt Romney: Here is where Romney’s most famous quote on immigration comes in. Asked in a January 2012 debate what to do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country, Romney responded: “The answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can’t find work here because they don’t have legal documentation to allow them to work here.”
In his first presidential run, he suggested families with children and deep roots in America could stay in the country … long enough to pack their bags.
“For those that have been here, let’s say, five years, and have kids in school, you allow kids to complete the school year, you allow people to make their arrangements, and allow them to return back home,” Romney said in a 2008 debate.
The GOP Today: While there’s still sympathy for states like Arizona who have put Romney’s ideas into practice by making life more difficult for their undocumented population, you’ll be hard pressed to find prominent Republicans advocating mass deportation as a viable solution. Romney got some heat for this during the primaries, too, as Newt Gingrich suggested letting local communities sponsor some illegal immigrants for legal status instead.
The DREAM Act
Mitt Romney: Romney didn’t just oppose the DREAM Act, which would give a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who earned a college degree or went to the military, he lit into Rick Perry for even granting in-state tuition to teenagers who lacked legal status. After the primaries, Romney suggested a compromise granting citizenship through military service only, but that would have covered just 1.5 percent of young undocumented immigrants.
The GOP Today: Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), who is famously averse to getting out in front of House conservatives on any major issue, recently endorsed citizenship for young undocumented immigrants. Expectations have shifted so hard that activist groups pushing for the DREAM Act say they won’t even endorse it anymore unless it’s part of a larger bill granting eventual citizenship to the broader undocumented population.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.