MIAMI - Mitt Romney, who rarely discusses his ancestry, has repeated a striking comment in Florida in recent days to soften his rhetoric about immigration and woo the crucial Hispanic voting bloc.
“My dad was born in Mexico,’’ Romney says at many campaign stops, as he expresses empathy and solidarity with immigrant families. It follows sharp rhetoric in places such as Iowa, where he decried what he called efforts to provide “amnesty’’ to the nation’s 12 million illegal immigrants.
The story of Romney’s father, George, is one that many Cuban-Americans can relate to in this city of immigrants: A revolution sweeps through the homeland, prompting an exodus of people who, in many cases, left behind everything to come to the United States. But in this case, George Romney’s country of birth was Mexico, not Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
The issue of immigration is especially sensitive in Florida, where Hispanics make up 11 percent of the Republican primary electorate, and could provide the key to victory in today’s primary. Romney’s chief challenger, Newt Gingrich, has called Romney anti-immigrant; Romney said the charge was repulsive.
It is in this context that Romney has mentioned that he is the child of a born-in-Mexico father. But he usually ends the story there, failing to explain the circumstances or, even more strikingly, why it might be relevant to those he is trying to win over.
Were he to tell the rest of the story, it doubtless would resonate with many here: George Romney was born in Mexico and was 5 years old when a revolution forced his family members in 1912 to flee their Mormon colony and seek refuge in the United States. The Mormon exiles lost their homes, farms, and most of their belongings, were welcomed by the United States, and benefited from a $100,000 refugee fund established by Congress.
But there are other elements to the Romney story that may explain why he doesn’t tell the full tale on the campaign trail. The reason that George was born in Mexico is that his grandfather - Mitt’s great-grandfather - had taken refuge there in order to escape US laws against polygamy. It was this family patriarch, Miles Park Romney, who established the colony and lived there with four wives.
Mitt Romney has decried what he has called the “awful’’ practice of polygamy and has never visited the colony, even though several dozen of his cousins continue to live there.
Romney’s new emphasis on his father’s roots drew the attention yesterday of a host on “Fox and Friends,’’ who said during an interview with Romney that it was the first time he had heard the former Massachusetts governor discuss that aspect of his ancestry.
Asked whether the discussion was “helping you with the Latino community in Florida,’’ Romney responded, “You know, I wish I could claim that I’m Hispanic and that would help me in the Latino community here in Florida and around the country, but my dad was born of American parents living in Mexico. So he was Anglo at the time and yet, I’m very proud of the fact that he came to this country at a critical time, was helped to get on his feet by folks in this country.’’
Romney has often declared his support for legal immigrants and said he would not try to round up those here illegally. Instead, he said he favored “self-deportation,’’ which Gingrich called a fantasy, but which Romney hopes will send a message to the Hispanic community here that he would not act precipitously.
Gingrich has cast himself slightly to the left of Romney on the issue, but Romney’s recent softening of his message may have blurred the distinction. Both men now say, for example, that they would support granting citizenship to certain illegal immigrants if they served in the US military, but they oppose a broader plan known as the Dream Act.
But even the muted rhetoric may not have gone far enough for some in the Republican Party who fear losing Hispanic support in the general election. Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida whose wife was born in Mexico and who has not endorsed any candidate, recently told The Wall Street Journal that Republicans must moderate their rhetoric about immigration.
“The tone of our message is one of ‘them and us’ sometimes,’’ he said.
Romney’s discussion of his father’s Mexican birth has prompted rounds of discussion in online forums about how his father, when he ran for president in 1968, could have met the constitutional requirement that a president be a “natural-born citizen.’’
In George Romney’s case, representatives of his 1968 presidential campaign argued that he fit the constitutional requirement because George’s parents, who had gone back and forth from the United States to Mexico, were US citizens.
Accounts published during the campaign indicate that questions were beginning to be raised, but the matter became moot when George Romney dropped out of the race.
A Congressional Research Report published last November that explores the issue said the Constitution did not define what it means to be a “natural-born citizen,’’ and notes that competing views were expressed when George Romney declared his candidacy.
Seth Lipsky, the author of “The Citizen’s Constitution: An Annotated Guide,’’ said that “in most past cases, Congress and the courts have been reluctant to open up doubts raised about candidates, and I think this reluctance is wise.’’
Mike Romney, a cousin of Mitt’s who lives in the Mexican colony established by their great-grandfather, welcomed his cousin’s new ancestral emphasis. “I am glad to hear that he is at least mentioning a bit of his Mexican roots,’’ Mike Romney said via e-mail.Michael Kranish can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him at Twitter @GlobeKranish