Supreme Court Ruling

Mitt Romney’s Immigration Gap Highlighted by Supreme Court Arizona Ruling

With Obama’s Dreamers decision and the Supreme Court’s Arizona ruling putting a spotlight on immigration, Romney has to outline his own solution, says Mark McKinnon.

Charles Dharapak / AP Photo

It ain’t over. Though the Supreme Court struck down three provisions in Arizona’s contested immigration law, its decision to uphold—for now—the provision allowing law enforcement to verify the immigration status of anyone stopped on suspicion of committing a separate offense creates a problem for Mitt Romney.

Until and unless the GOP presidential nominee is willing to outline specifically what he envisions as a long-term solution to illegal immigration, he will be the loser any time the issue is in the news. That’s bad for Romney. Though it may be short-lived—the immigration debate and its political fallout will soon be swamped by the court's imminent decision on the constitutionality of Obamacare.

But here's the problem for Romney. He won the Republican primary in no small measure because he was willing to bludgeon any opponent who took a position that in any way appeared sympathetic to the plight of illegal immigrants. He took out Rick Perry, who on paper looked to be the guy who could beat Romney, by attacking the Texas governor's compassionate conservative idea to allow children of illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state college tuition rates if they completed at least three years of high school in Texas and committed to pursuing citizenship. This measure received overwhelming bipartisan support in the very conservative Texas legislature, with only five dissenting votes, way back in 2001.

It was a clear strategic consideration by the Romney campaign. And it was mercenary. From all I can gather about Romney, I don't think he is as strident on the issue of illegal immigration as he appeared to be in the primaries. He just proved that he is willing to do anything to win. (Remember what he said about Donald Trump's association: “You know, I don't agree with all the people who support me and my guess is they don't all agree with everything I believe in, but I need to get 50.1 percent or more and I'm appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people.”)

So here is Romney's reaction to the ruling: “Today's decision underscores the need for a President who will lead on this critical issue and work in a bipartisan fashion to pursue a national immigration strategy. President Obama has failed to provide any leadership on immigration. This represents yet another broken promise by this President.

"I believe 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. As Candidate Obama, he promised to present an immigration plan during his first year in office. But four years later, we are still waiting.”

OK, fair enough. And we shouldn't forget that Obama was responsible, in part, for blowing up a very fragile bipartisan agreement on immigration reform, led by Sen. Ted Kennedy and Sen. John McCain in June 2007 by proposing his own amendment to limit merit-based green cards, which failed, and then supporting another final deal-breaker amendment. The legislation then failed to overcome a Senate filibuster.

But now President Obama has put forward a policy to end deportation of people younger than 30 who illegally entered the United States before the age of 16, yet Romney won't even say whether or not he would repeal the policy, much less outline what he would do on this or any broader immigration policy. So until and unless he does, credit and advantage to Obama.

Romney made some progress in his speech last week in Florida to an important organization of elected Hispanics. He's starting to get the tone and the body language right. Yes, we need a long-term solution and comprehensive immigration reform.

But how about the next step and the hard part? What is it? What is your vision and version?

In order to gain an increased share of Hispanic support, which he'll need to win in key battleground states, Romney has to be willing to articulate both specifics and a broader vision of how immigration fits into a macroeconomic framework for the country.

He should make clear that we don't want two classes of immigrants—those who can become residents and those who can become citizens. Ultimately, there should be a plan and a pathway to citizenship for those here illegally now. And it should be fair. Citizenship requires going to the end of line.

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Romney should recognize that there is an immigrant message that ties directly to his focus on jobs and the economy. He just needs to stitch together all the threads into a coherent vision of the future that includes a vibrant economy.

He should make it clear that when we get immigrants out of the gray economy, we all benefit. Global CEO Sol Trujillo pointed out at the Wall Street Journal Summit last year: "The U.S. Hispanic market will soon be the eleventh largest economy in the world." And Trujillo points out trade with the Americas can be as large or larger than with China or India.

We should make it easy for 7 to 8 million undocumented immigrants to contribute to the economy. If you've been working and you have no criminal record, you apply for and get residency, and then you go to the back of the line for citizenship.

Here's the irony. Right now we actually have a net migration from Mexico of zero. That's because Mexico's GDP is growing at 6 to 8 percent. Immigration happens when there is opportunity.

So, would you rather have zero immigration and no growth in the U.S. economy? Or a healthy U.S. economy that attracts immigrants looking for opportunity?

We just need a humane way to treat those who come here just as our forefathers did before them. Obama, with his announcement about children of undocumented immigrants, put some cards on the table. Romney has yet to show his hand.