WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney has recently started attacking Newt Gingrich for saying that some illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country, deriding the position as “amnesty’’ as he tries to stem the rise of one of his strongest rivals for the Republican presidential nomination.
But just five years ago, Romney advocated a nearly identical position, and his evolution to a more hard-line position is exposing the former Massachusetts governor to the flip-flop charges that have been seen as one of his major vulnerabilities.
In 2006, Romney told Bloomberg News’s Washington bureau that those in the country illegally “are not going to be rounded up and boxcarred out.’’
“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 told Bloomberg on March 29, 2006, before he was a presidential candidate.
Romney also added, “We’re not going to go through a process of tracking them all down and moving them out.’’
The comments, which Bloomberg reported yesterday, are similar to ones Gingrich made at a debate last week, when he said the United States should have a “humane’’ immigration policy that enforces the law without separating families who have been in the country for decades.
Romney pounced, labeling Gingrich’s policy “amnesty.’’ Minutes after the debate, Romney’s advisers sensed that Gingrich made a major mistake by advocating a path to legal residency for some illegal immigrants. “Mitt Romney is against amnesty, and Newt Gingrich made it very clear he was for amnesty,’’ Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney adviser, said after the debate.
But Fehrnstrom declined to answer repeated questions about what Romney would do with the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the country.
“He doesn’t believe in granting them amnesty,’’ Fehrnstrom responded several times. He then said that if all incentives for illegal immigrants to be in the United States were removed, “they will go to their native countries.’’
“You turn off the magnets - no in-state tuition, no benefits of any kind, no employment,’’ Fehrnstrom said. “You put in place an employment verification system with penalties for employers that hire illegals, that will shut off access to the job market, and they will self-retreat.’’
During campaign stops earlier this year, Romney has frequently mentioned building a fence along the Mexican border, adding more border patrol agents, and cracking down on employers who hire those they know are in the country illegally.
But even while Romney has talked about things he would do to make the country less hospitable to illegal immigrants, he has generally avoided saying explicitly what he would do with the millions who are currently in the country illegally.
In a 2005 interview with the Globe, he said it was not “practical or economic for the country’’ to deport all illegal immigrants. “These people contribute in many cases to our economy and to our society,’’ he said. “In some cases, they do not. But that’s a whole group we’re going to have to determine how to deal with.’’
Immigration, which rarely came up in the early part of the campaign, has proved to be a resilient issue in the Republican presidential race.
Representative Michele Bachmann yesterday said all 11 million illegal immigrants should be deported, in various stages.
Governor Rick Perry faced a conservative backlash over a law he signed that allows illegal immigrants in Texas to pay in-state tuition rates at the state’s public colleges and universities.
At a debate six weeks ago in Las Vegas, Perry also raised accusations that Romney had hired illegal immigrants to work on his lawn in Belmont, Mass., insisting that it hurt Romney’s credibility on the issue and was the “height of hypocrisy.’’
Gingrich has promoted a “red card’’ plan that would split immigrants in the country illegally into two groups. Those seeking citizenship would be put on one track, while those who are seeking work only would be issued “red cards’’ that require them to return to their country of origin at the end of their employment.
Romney has struggled at times in the past to reconcile positions he held while running for office in Massachusetts, and those he shifted to while seeking the GOP presidential nomination in 2008. The Democratic National Committee started running ads yesterday tagging Romney as “two men trapped in one body’’ - which Romney responded to with numerous conference calls where supporters stuck up for him. Gingrich seemed to allude to Romney’s shifting positions.
“I wouldn’t switch my positions for political reasons,’’ Gingrich said yesterday on WSC-FM Radio in Charleston, S.C., without specifically mentioning Romney. “It’s perfectly reasonable to change your position if facts change. If you see new things you didn’t see - everybody’s done that, Ronald Reagan did it. It’s wrong to go around to adopt radically different positions based on your need of any one election, because then people will have to ask themselves, ‘What will you tell me next time?’ ’’
Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which opposes amnesty and advocates for lower levels of legal immigration, said yesterday that Romney’s position in 2006 is “very similar to what Newt is proposing now.’’ But he praised Romney for arriving at a stance his group agrees with - rather than continuing to advocate for one they oppose.Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com. Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.