Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had his best opportunity to reach out to Hispanics and increase his paltry 30 percent support among Latino voters last week when he appeared before a nationally broadcast Univision/Facebook forum in Miami. He blew it.
Granted, Romney came across as much more confident and seemingly gentler to Hispanics than during the primaries, when — in his effort to outflank his conservative anti-immigration rivals from the right — he often sounded as a Latino basher. If you had not been following the immigration debate closely, you may have thought that Romney was offering Latinos a big carrot Wednesday when he called for a “permanent solution” on immigration.
But if you listen carefully to what he said — and more importantly, what he omitted — at the forum, it’s hard not to conclude that Romney wasted his biggest chance so far to separate himself from the hard-line Republican extremists whose anti-immigration policies many Latinos fear would create a hostile climate against all Hispanics in this country.
Let’s look at the facts: during the primaries, Romney said that Arizona’s draconian immigration law should be a model for the nation, that he would veto the DREAM act that would give a path to citizenship to up to 1.7 million immigrant students, and that he would favor “self-deportation” of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, a strategy that critics say amounts to making life impossible for them until they voluntarily leave the country.
On Wednesday — despite his glamorous smile, his repeated vows to find a “permanent solution” to the immigration problem, and cheers from an adoring crowd of mostly Cuban-American Republicans — Romney did not walk away from any of those positions.
In addition, instead of talking about “undocumented immigrants” or “illegal immigrants,” he used the term “illegal aliens,” a dehumanizing label that obscures the fact that many undocumented workers entered the country through the back door because of an outdated visa system that doesn’t allow them to get in through the front door.
Asked about his support for the Arizona law, which allows local police forces to act as immigration officers, and that critics say paves the way to police harassment of Latinos, Romney sidestepped the question by focusing on the law’s employer-verification system.
On the DREAM Act, Romney softened his previous all-out opposition by praising Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s proposal to give some undocumented college students a path to legal residence, but not citizenship. But Romney dodged repeated questions about whether he would renew President Barack Obama’s recent decision to temporarily halt deportations of DREAM act-eligible students.
Time and again, Romney responded with a promise to find a “permanent solution” to the immigration problem.
Problem is, he didn’t offer specifics, which amounts to offering a non-solution. And his “permanent solution” non-proposal omitted the word “comprehensive,” as in “comprehensive immigration reform,” which is the way Democrats and moderate Republicans refer to an immigration bill that would simultaneously address border security, visa quotas and a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants who meet certain standards.
On his proposal for “self-deportation” of undocumented immigrants, Romney downplayed the deportation side of the equation, but in effect did not change his previous stand that undocumented immigrants — even those who have been here for decades — should go home before they are allowed to apply for visas.
“A lot of people expected him to walk away from those far-right policies after the primaries, but he did not,” says Frank Sharry, head of liberal America’s Voice pro-immigration group. “What he did on Wednesday was using different sound-bytes to try to downplay earlier sound-bytes in hopes of fooling Latino voters.”
My opinion: Romney, who according to a new Fox News Latino poll trails Obama by 60 percent to 30 percent among Latino voters, could have done himself a great favor if he had explicitly disassociated himself from anti-immigration extremists in his own party.
He could have said that, after extensive talks with Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and other Republicans who are moderates on immigration, and considering the fact that illegal immigration has fallen to zero nowadays, he has concluded that the Arizona law should no longer be held as a model for the nation, and that it no longer makes sense to veto the DREAM Act, nor to keep postponing a comprehensive immigration reform.
He didn’t do that, probably for fears of being seen as a chronic flip-flopper. Perhaps he will still do it in the presidential debates, but he had the best opportunity he will probably get to do it in front of a nationwide Latino audience, and he didn’t use it.