As Florida Primary Looms, Romney’s Immigration Views, Heritage at Issue

by on December 6th, 2010
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Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate from Massachusetts, is technically half Mexican. It’s a fact kept largely under wraps, but due to the geographic shift in the locations of primary contests toward Southern states like Florida, the subject is coming up more frequently.

Romney’s father, George, was born in a Mormon colony in Chihuahua, Mexico, but moved back to the United States as a small child. Mitt’s great-grandparents fled to Mexico in the 1800s to escape U.S. laws prohibiting polygamy. They were forced to return to the U.S. when the Mexican Revolution broke out. As Romney will readily admit, he does not consider himself a Mexican-American, although he joked at a Univision “Meet the Candidates” forum in Miami this week that his parentage could play to his advantage in states with a significant Hispanic population, like Florida.

For a candidate who could technically become the country’s first Latino president, Romney is shockingly out of touch on immigration and border issues. Nearer the beginning of the Republic primary season, Romney seemed to focus on attacking the immigration stances of his opponents as weak. But now, as he begins to articulate more of his own policy ideas, he is coming under fire from candidates and pundits alike.

The only reference in “An American Century,” the Romney camp’s official campaign literature, to the issue of illegal immigration comes late in the document, asserting that “Romney will use the full powers of the presidency to complete an impermeable border fence protecting our southern frontier from infiltration by illegal migrants, trans-national criminal networks, and terrorists.” Yet again another politician tries to fire up his base by pretending some barbed wire or concrete will solve a human problem.

During Monday night’s NBC News debate in Florida, Romney explained his plan for “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants – wherein our laws become so strict that it is almost impossible for illegal immigrants to find work or use public services so they return to their home country voluntarily. He has also promised to veto the Dream Act, legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the country if they serve in the military or complete a college degree.

Each of these statements, although potentially appealing to a national conservative base, hurts Romney in the South, where many conservatives have more moderate leanings on immigration policy, and may doom him entirely with Hispanic voters. More importantly, they expose that Romney does not really appreciate the nuance of the immigration situation.

Other Republican candidates for the presidency have shown themselves to be more reasonable and more informed on immigration issues. Rick Perry, who dropped out of the race just ahead of last week’s South Carolina primary, received many attacks from Romney for his supposedly lenient policy toward illegal immigrants. But despite his many flaws, this is one area in which Perry actually has some experience. His position as Governor of Texas has given him a more tempered view of the situation, and he has supported policies Romney and many in the Republican base find too generous, such as allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition to public universities.

Newt Gingrich, too, has displayed a more balanced view. While emphasizing the importance of legal immigration, he also states that many illegal immigrants have been in the country for so long that they have become productive, contributing members of society and that it would be wrong to deport such people. Romney has also criticized Gingrich, with a spokesman saying the former speaker’s policies are tantamount to amnesty.

But Romney’s biggest opponent is not ready to let him slide on his harsh immigration stance. Gingrich said of Romney at the Univision forum in Miami, “He certainly shows no concern for the humanity of people who are already here.” When Gingrich thinks someone is showing a lack of compassion, it’s serious. Gingrich has also criticized the naivety of Romney’s “self-deportation” plan, calling it an “Obama-level fantasy.”

Romney’s harsh policies represent a transparent effort to appeal to the conservative base. It may even be partially engineered to quell fears that his parentage will make him too lax on illegal immigration. At the recent Fox News debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, moderator Juan Williams was loudly booed by the audience upon mentioning Romney’s personal connection to Mexico. Audience members at Republican debates have applauded and booed for some strange causes, so it is more than probable they booed to express discomfort with Romney’s heritage. Romney himself has downplayed his Mexican-American bonafides, explaining to Univision that because his family began as and remained U.S. citizens and didn’t speak Spanish, he ” can’t claim that honor” (of calling himself Mexican-American).

Romney’s family’s ability to leave the US to seek a better, freer life in Mexico and ability to return when Mexico became unsafe, represents the same goal of improvement that motivates many immigrants, legal and illegal, today. But he has been unable or unwilling to extrapolate his family’s positive border crossing experience to today’s immigration issues.

By appealing to his base on immigration, Romney has alienated the Hispanic vote. David Johnson, a Republican strategist, told the Huffington Post Romney’s positions indicate he “will not be seeking the Latino vote in the same way George W. Bush did.” Bush won between 30 percent and 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his presidential contests.

According to a Pew Research Center survey of registered Hispanic voters, in a head-to-head match with President Obama, Romney would win only 23 percent of their vote, compared to Obama’s 68 percent. Even if Romney were to become the Republican nominee, could he win the general election without at least some support from this demographic he has been so studiously alienating? Can he even win a primary in a state with a significant Hispanic population?

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