Mitt Romney, in Arizona for campaign fundraisers, issued a guarded response to yesterday’s Supreme Court decision voiding most of the state’s crackdown on illegal immigration, highlighting the political peril for the presumed Republican presidential nominee on the issue.
For Romney, the ruling offered yet another reminder that the former Massachusetts governor took hardline stances on illegal immigration during his party’s primary, yet is now pledging to pursue a long-term bipartisan solution during his first year in office without specifying what that would entail.
“Mitt Romney has dug himself into a great, big hole with Latinos on immigration,” said Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist who advised the party’s 2008 nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain, on Hispanic outreach. Romney is not confronting President Barack Obama “in a real way, and if he doesn’t, Obama is going to get a free pass on this.”
For the president, whose administration sued to block the Arizona law, the decision marked a partial victory. The court struck down provisions making it a state crime for those in the U.S. illegally to seek work or be in the state without proper documentation. Still, the ruling called attention to the fact that Obama hasn’t fulfilled his 2008 campaign pledge to create a pathway to legal status for some of the nation’s 11.5 million illegal immigrants.
The decision spotlighted an issue that pits two politically potent constituencies Romney needs against each other: the Republican base, which favors get-tough immigration enforcement policies like Arizona’s, and independents and particularly Hispanic voters, many of whom are alienated by such measures.
After Romney spent most of yesterday avoiding questions on the ruling, the Republican challenger highlighted the dysfunction of the current immigration system at an event in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“Given the failure of the immigration policy in this country, I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to states, not less,” Romney told about 200 donors. “States now, under this decision, have less authority, less latitude to enforce immigration laws.”
He followed that comment with a tirade directed at Obama, that blamed the “muddle” of the U.S. immigration system on the president’s inaction: “Why, Mr. President, did you not do what you said you’d do?” Romney said during the event at the Scottsdale Plaza Resort.
Obama used the ruling to bolster his argument that he’s fighting for immigration reform and protecting civil rights. In a White House statement, Obama said he was “pleased” with the decision to strike down most of the law, yet concerned about the remaining part that requires Arizona police to check immigration status of people they suspect are in the country illegally.
“We must ensure that Arizona law enforcement officials do not enforce this law in a manner that undermines the civil rights of Americans,” Obama said.
The president didn’t mention the ruling during appearances in New Hampshire and Boston yesterday. He will have a tailor- made audience to talk about the ruling’s implications and his call for Congress to take up an overhaul today, when he raises money from Hispanic supporters in swing-state Florida.
After two campaign events in Atlanta, Obama is scheduled to travel to Miami, attending a 30-donor, $40,000-per-ticket event at the home of Abigail Pollak, a Peruvian-born lawyer and political fundraiser active in Latino voting rights causes. Obama also is to attend a 1,500-donor event featuring singer Marc Anthony, a Grammy and Latin Grammy winner, with tickets starting at $44.
Romney waited until a session with contributors, with no cameras and only a few reporters present, to address the ruling in person yesterday. His campaign issued a statement shortly after the decision was announced in which Romney said that, “each state has the duty -- and the right -- to secure our borders and preserve the rule of law, particularly when the federal government has failed to meet its responsibilities.”
His aides said Romney would likely have no further comment on the matter, declining to make him available for press questions on his campaign plane about the Arizona decision and refusing repeatedly to clarify his stance on it or the underlying law.
“The governor supports the rights of states,” Rick Gorka, Romney’s traveling press secretary, told reporters, citing the 10th Amendment on states’ rights. “That’s all we’re going to say on this issue.”
Romney’s balancing act reflects shifting ground in the immigration debate that began with Obama’s announcement --widely popular, according to a June 15-18 Bloomberg Poll -- that the government would seek to not deport certain illegal immigrants ages 30 and younger who were brought to the United States as children, were otherwise law-abiding, and were attending school or had served in the military, said Tamar Jacoby, the president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a network of businesses favoring an immigration overhaul.
“The Obama order kind of lifted the veil on a changing public mood, and you’re starting to see the results of that with Romney and other Republicans,” said Jacoby, who has advised McCain and other members of his party on immigration policy.
“I think they feel that that segment of the public that thinks it’s possible to have such tough enforcement that you drive immigrants away is not driving opinion anymore, and the portion of the public that realizes that we can’t deport millions of unauthorized immigrants has gotten stronger,” Jacoby said.
By making vague statements on immigration and refusing to weigh in on key questions about it, Navarro said, Romney is passing up opportunities to capitalize on that shift.
“If we had the right tone, the right message and the right messenger, we definitely could chip away at Obama’s advantage with Latinos,” Navarro said. “I think Romney has made a very big mistake, and he’s been compounding on the mistake in the past several months with this narrative that he’s avoiding the immigration issue like the bubonic plague.”
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