Republicans and Democrats can agree on one thing: Both sides say former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has changed his views on a range of issues to make good with conservative voters.
The latest attack comes from Democratic National Committee, which launched a new website this week highlighting Romney’s flip-flops.
DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin headlined a press conference to introduce Minnesotans to the site, saying, “Romney once supported Ted Kennedy and John McCain’s immigration reform bill, but last week he said he’s willing to kick out of America families who have lived in the United States for over a generation.”
Martin’s statement uses hyperbole to score a point against a Republican presidential hopeful, but it’s true that Mitt Romney has shifted the way he talks about immigration.
In 2005, Republican Sen. John McCain, and Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy were leading an effort to overhaul federal immigration rules. Among other things, their proposal would have created a path to citizenship for immigrants not legally in the United States, as long as they worked, declined public benefits and paid fines and back taxes.
According to a March 2007 Boston Globe story, Romney said in 2005 that the McCain-Kennedy plan and others were “reasonable proposals” because they didn’t simply hand out citizenship to illegal immigrants – a process known as amnesty often criticized by some on the right.
“[The bill is] saying you could work your way into becoming a legal resident of the country by working here without taking benefits and then applying and then paying a fine,” Romney told the Globe in 2005.
The Globe reported that Romney stopped short of endorsing the McCain-Kennedy bill, as Martin’s claim implies. But he signaled that he generally supported a plan that would allow some illegal immigrants to stay in the country.
In March 2006, Romney told The Lowell Sun that while he didn’t believe in amnesty, he also didn’t believe “in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from our country.”
“Let’s have them registered, know who they are,” Romney said. “Those who have been arrested or convicted of crimes shouldn’t be here. Those that are here paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process towards application for citizenship, as they would from their home country.”
Romney made similar comments to Bloomberg News in 2006, and again suggested that some illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the United States.
“We need to begin a process of registering those people, some being returned, and some beginning the process of applying for citizenship and establishing legal status,” Romney said according to a recent Bloomberg story on his immigration record.
But by 2007, as he launched his first bid for the White House, Romney’s tone had changed.
Westy Egmont, who co-chaired an immigration advisory committee during Romney’s tenure, says the shift was driven by McCain’s presence in the race.
“Romney went from trying to figure out a position where he could turn off the magnets and yet appear to offer an understanding that people needed to get themselves right in status,” Egmont said. “With that not working, and with McCain being competitive for the presidency, I saw him taking a position challenging McCain for amnesty. He became hardline with respect to McCain.”
Romney’s comments at a 2007 event in Arizona with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose aggressive views on illegal immigrants make him a controversial figure, underscore Egmont’s observations.
“My view is there should be no advantage for those that are here illegally in pursuing a course of permanent residency,” Romney said. He said that legislation that would allow some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship “could result in virtual amnesty,” according to the Globe.
When pressed on his 2006 comments to the Lowell Sun on a 2007 episode of Meet the Press, Romney said what he meant was that illegal immigrants should “have a set period during which… they sign up for application for permanent residency or for citizenship. But there’s a set period where upon they should return home… For the great majority, they’ll be going home.”
Romney’s 2007 comments were reflected in the Nov. 11, 2011, Republican debate Martin references.
At the event, GOP contender Newt Gingrich said that illegal immigrants who have been here for “25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.”
When CNN host Wolf Blitzer asked Romney if he thought that Gingrich’s approach amounted to amnesty, and entice others to come to the United States illegally, Romney’s response was unequivocal.
“There’s no question,” Romney said. “To say that we’re going to say to the people who have come here illegally that now you’re all going to get to stay or some large number are going to get to stay and become permanent residents of the United States, that will only encourage more people to do the same thing.”
But when pressed by Blitzer to say whether he would let some long-time illegal immigrants stay, Romney dodged the question.
“I’m not going to start drawing lines here about who gets to stay and who get to go,” Romney said. “The principle is that we are not going to have an amnesty system that says that people who come here illegally get to stay for the rest of their life in this country legally.”
Romney’s flip-flop on immigration reform is not as dramatic or clear-cut as Martin makes it out to be; Romney always talked around the edges of the issue, and never officially endorsed any specific immigration proposal.
But it’s true that Romney’s tone on immigration has changed in recent years, especially as he has run for president.
So, while Martin is guilty of hyperbole, it would be misleading to say that Romney hasn’t changed his views on immigration.
It was a tough call, but because Romney initially called the McCain-Kennedy approach reasonable and now says he will not support a system that allows illegal immigrants to stay, PoliGraph says that Martin’s statement leans toward accurate.
Thomas, Summary of H.R. 2330: Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, accessed Nov. 29, 2011
The Boston Globe, Romney’s words grow hard on immigration, by Scott Helman, March 16, 2007 (subscription only)
The Boston Globe, Romney’s shifting stance on immigration, by Matt Viser, Nov. 29, 2011 (subscription only)
The Lowell Sun, Romney supports immigration program, but not granting ‘amnesty’, March 30, 2006 (subscription only)
Bloomberg News, Romney in 2006 Backed Immigration Stance He Now Deems ‘Amnesty’, by Julie Hirschfield Davis, Nov. 27, 2011
Meet the Press, transcript, Dec. 16, 2007, accessed Nov. 29, 2011
Time Magazine, Transcript of Nov. 22 CNN GOP debate, accessed Nov. 29, 2011
E-mail exchange, Carlie Waibel, DFL spokeswoman
E-mail exchange, Andrea Saul, spokeswoman, Romney for President