WASHINGTON — Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney share a big problem as they try to act like tough guys in increasingly tense debates on immigration: their pasts.
They battled Wednesday night in a CNN debate over who was less tolerant of illegal immigrants, but it's clear that each man ran a jurisdiction that's arguably among the nation's most tolerant, where cracking down on undocumented aliens wasn't good politics
But now, Giuliani, the mayor of New York from 1994 to 2001, and Romney, the governor of Massachusetts from 2003 through January, are vying for the Republican presidential nomination amid an uproar over illegal immigration. So they're gritting their teeth, squaring their shoulders and vowing to throw the bums out and keep them out.
The result has been the kind of schoolyard brawl the nation saw at the CNN-YouTube debate.
Giuliani accused Romney of taking a "holier-than-thou attitude" about his policies, when in fact "at his own home illegal immigrants are being employed."
Romney fired back that New York "called itself a sanctuary city" for illegal immigrants, adding that Giuliani as mayor said, "we welcome you here. We want you here. We'll protect you here."
While both men have been talking and in some cases acting tough on illegal immigration for years, they haven't always been as tough as they'd like Republican voters to think they are.
Giuliani hasn't significantly changed his views, said Fred Siegel, a history professor at The Cooper Union in New York, but "he's changed his emphasis."
Romney, said Elena Letona, the executive director of Centro Presente, a Latin American community organization in Cambridge, Mass., didn't make immigration a top priority while he was governor.
"It seemed like when it became obvious that he was campaigning for national office, he started talking about his opposition to illegal immigration," she said.
The biggest fight between the Giuliani and Romney camps centers on who tolerated "sanctuary cities." These are cities that try to be havens for undocumented workers; that generally means that law enforcement officials aren't permitted to ask people about their immigration status when they seek city services.
Romney has insisted for weeks, and reiterated Wednesday night, that New York was such a city when Giuliani was mayor. Giuliani insists that it wasn't: "The reality is that New York City was not a sanctuary city," he said at the debate.
At a 2003 congressional hearing on the city's immigration policies, John Feinblatt, the city's criminal justice coordinator, opened his testimony by saying, "Let me begin by making one thing crystal clear: New York City has no sanctuary policy for undocumented aliens."
In Massachusetts, a handful of cities did designate themselves as sanctuaries. Cambridge, for instance, had that designation since 1985, and in 2006 it took a new vote to reiterate that status.
The city council resolved that the city "rejects the use of the world illegal to describe human beings and the use of the word aliens to describe immigrants." It urged the use of the word "undocumented" and "immigrant" instead.
Letona called the sanctuary designation largely symbolic, and Romney's campaign points out that there was little that Romney as governor could have done to stop such local efforts.
Romney did oppose giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and vetoed legislation that would have made them eligible for in-state tuition at state schools.
Perhaps he could have withheld state aid, but since the governor faced an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, the chances are any such effort would have failed.
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden explained that the problem with sanctuary cities "is that they ignore federal immigration law, not state law, since there is no state immigration law."
As president, Madden said, Romney would use federal money going to states "in order to have leverage over localities that are ignoring federal immigration law to change course and start enforcing the law."
Giuliani and Romney also are battling about who was more tolerant of undocumented workers.
The Romney camp likes to trot out a 1994 Giuliani statement: "If you come here and you work hard and you happen to be in an undocumented status," he said, "you're one of the people we want in this city.
"You're somebody we want to protect, and we want you to get out from under what is often a life of being like a fugitive, which is really unfair."
But former New York Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro argued that people should examine the full statement. The mayor's next sentence was: "And if you're someone who comes here and you want to violate the drug laws, the laws against violence, the laws to protect us in other ways, then I'd like to see you apprehended and put in prison and then sent back to where you came from."
Giuliani wasn't encouraging illegal immigration, said Mastro, but he realized the value of staying tied to the community while he undertook his anti-crime initiatives. Illegal immigrants could help police find criminal suspects.
Giuliani fires back that Romney once employed illegal immigrants to help tend his lawn. "It just so happens that you have a special immigration problem that nobody else here has," he said at the debate. "You were employing illegal immigrants."
Romney said flatly: "No, I did not."
In fact, Romney for several years used a lawn service at his home that employed undocumented aliens.
Madden explained that "Governor Romney hired a company, not the individuals who were not of legal status. The owner of the company was a legal immigrant who claimed that the workers were legal, though he did not request documentation."
Romney, Madden said, "obviously had no knowledge of the legal status of the company's individual employees."
The third ring in this circus involves enforcement.
Romney likes to boast about how he gave Massachusetts state troopers the power to arrest illegal aliens on immigration charges, but Giuliani likes to point out that Romney did so only on Dec. 13, 2006, about three weeks before he left office.
Campaign officials said that Romney realized he could seek that authority only in summer 2006, and it took a few months to put everything in place.
In New York City, the dispute focuses on a 1989 executive order, issued by then-Mayor Ed Koch, that barred any city employee or office from reporting an illegal alien to the feds — unless that person was "suspected by such agency of engaging in criminal activity."
Giuliani cites the drop in crime during his stewardship as evidence that the policy worked. Feinblatt insisted that "the order could not be clearer, and any suggestion that the city of New York maintains a policy that interferes with such cooperation is simply incorrect."
Or is it?
Romney points to the order — and to Giuliani's 1996 federal lawsuit challenging federal policies that require city officials to provide the names of illegal aliens who wanted police protection, hospital care, education and other services — as evidence that New York was a sanctuary city. Giuliani said at the time that Washington would "do nothing with those names but terrorize people."
So which guy is tougher?
Not Romney, said Mastro. "Romney's trying to hide his own abysmal record on illegal immigration by distorting Rudy's," he said.
Not Rudy, said Madden. "Rudy Giuliani, as mayor of New York City, actually publicly advocated and welcomed illegal immigration, even promising to offer lawbreakers a sanctuary of protection," he said.
They're both kind of right. And they're both kind of wrong.
On the Web:
Executive Order 124: www.courts.state.ny.us/library/queens/PDF(underscore)files/Orders/ord124.pdf
Cambridge City Council 2006 sanctuary resolution: www.rwinters.com/council/050806.pdf