Romney: A Flip-Flopper on Immigration or a Bona Fide Hardliner?

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaking in 2010. (Photo: World Affairs Council Philadelphia/flickr)

Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has been accused of flip-flopping on issues, chief among them immigration. But has his stance on immigration really shifted that much?

Finger-pointers wonder how Romney has the chutzpah to accuse Newt Gingrich of being soft on immigration, claiming the former Speaker was opening “a new doorway to amnesty,” when he once shared Gingrich’s position that long-time residents without papers should be granted a path to citizenship.

In 2005, then-Massachusetts Governor Romney told the Boston Globe that it was not “practical or economic for the country’’ to deport all undocumented immigrants. “These people contribute in many cases to our economy and to our society,’’ he said.

A year later, Romney told Bloomberg News that immigrants who are in the country unlawfully “are not going to be rounded up and box-carried out.”

He added that “we should have those individuals who are here illegally begin a process either of returning to their homes — particularly those that are unable to be here without government support or those who are involved in crime –or beginning a process of registering for a citizenship, applying for citizenship and then carrying out the process necessary to get there.”

But even in 2005, Romney was far from being an advocate for immigrants. Westy Egmont, a Boston College professor who served as Co-Chair of Governor Romney’s Advisory Committee on Immigrants and Refugees, recalled his interaction with Romney during this period.

“He started as a person without much opinion or a position on immigration,” Egmont said. “He didn’t want to meet with the advisory committee on immigrants and refugees which was odd since we were his appointees, there to serve him at his behest.”

Eva Millona, Executive Director of Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition who served as Co-Chair with Egmont shares the impression.

“He was disengaged as a governor, not just only on immigration but on other issues as well,” Millona said. “He wasn’t very much present in the state.

Romney’s detachment did not mean that he had a soft spot for unauthorized immigrants.

Egmont remembers that Romney “was increasingly moving to the right” and “was increasingly looking for ways to demonstrate a hardline stance towards undocumented immigrants and as he left office, he signed up Massachusetts to the 287g program.”

Millona believes that Romney, though disengaged, has always been a hardliner on immigration issues even while Governor of Massachusetts. “He has been consistent and not friendly to immigration policy and to immigrants and refugees,” she said.

Indeed, while governor, Romney vetoed legislation that would have afforded in-state tuition for undocumented students; opposed driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrants; requested a federal investigation of companies that allegedly hired workers without documents; and fought against bilingual education in public schools.

Although Romney may have once thought it impractical to deport millions of unauthorized immigrants, he has consistently said that they should fall back in line behind those who play by the rules. Lanhee Chen, Romney’s policy director, said that he “absolutely opposes” allowing unauthorized immigrants “to cut in line.”

“Those people who had come here illegally and are in this country, the 12 million or so that are here illegally, should be able to sign up for permanent residency or citizenship,” Romney said during a 2007 “Meet the Press” interview, “but they should not be given a special pathway, a special guarantee that all of them get to stay here for the rest of their lives merely by virtue of having come here illegally.”

It’s less of a flip-flop than an evolution of Romney’s soft lines becoming hard. Or, as Millona argues, it’s simply a lack of clarity on Romney’s part.  He doesn’t know enough about the issues to say clearly if all immigrants without papers should be sent back en masse to their native countries or only certain individuals.

“[Romney] lacks understanding of U.S. immigration policy, that it’s an outdated policy, that it needs to be repaired,” Millona said. She believes the presidential hopeful does not know “what needs to be reformed in terms of national immigration policy and national integration policy.”

Maybe so. What’s clear is that Romney is more intent on proving to the GOP base that he is the most conservative on immigration, rather than demonstrating his understanding of the issue.

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Feet in Two Worlds is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation and the Sirus Fund.  Feet in Two Worlds podcasts are supported in part by WNYC, New York Public Radio.

AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.