Mitt Romney refused to say on Sunday whether he would revoke President Obama’s executive order allowing more than 800,000 illegal immigrants to remain in the United States without fear of deportation, a deflection that highlights his tenuous relationship with Latino voters.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee accused Obama of political calculation in issuing the order only months before the November election and said the directive does not address the need for comprehensive immigration reform. A Latino Decisions poll published Sunday showed 49 percent of Latinos, who already backed Obama 3 to 1, now support the president more enthusiastically because of the order.
But during an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation,’’ Romney, who is preparing for a highly anticipated speech to Latino politicians later this week, did not charge that the president overextended his authority, as others in the GOP have done. And pressed by host Bob Schieffer to state whether he would leave Obama’s order in place while working on a long-term immigration solution, Romney refused to be pinned down.
“We’ll look at that setting as we reach that,’’ Romney said, “but my anticipation is I’d come into office and say, ‘We need to get this done on a long-term basis, not this kind of stop-gap measure. What the president did - he should have worked on this years ago. If he felt seriously about this, he should have taken action when he had a Democrat House and Senate.’’
On Friday, Obama ordered the Department of Homeland Security to cease the deportation of illegal immigrants who entered the US before age 16, have lived here for at least five years, and are enrolled in high school, hold high school diplomas, or are military veterans in good standing. Deportation-exempt immigrants also must be younger than 30 and have clean criminal records.
Among other benefits, the order grants these illegal immigrants the rights to work and obtain driver’s licenses.
The parameters contained in Obama’s executive order are similar to the eligibility requirements in the stalled Dream Act, which would give many young illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
The president noted in a news conference announcing the order that his directive does not go that far.
“Now let’s be clear: This is not an amnesty,’’ Obama said. “This is not a path to citizenship. It is not a permanent fix.’’
But some Republicans have nevertheless labeled it an illegitimate - and possibly illegal - power grab.
Versions of the Dream Act, which Romney opposes, have languished in Congress for years, frustrating Democrats and prompting calls for White House action, like the one just taken by the president. But Obama indicated last year during a town hall event sponsored by the Spanish-language channel Univision that he would not attempt to bypass the gridlock via an executive order.
“With respect to the notion that I can just suspend deportations through executive order - that’s just not the case,’’ the president said in March 2011.
“For me to simply through executive order ignore those congressional mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as president,’’ Obama added.
Some in the GOP have hit Obama hard for what they see as the hypocrisy of Friday’s order, which instructed Homeland Security not to enforce immigration laws on certain individuals.
But Romney avoided that line of attack Sunday; he has pledged to do something similar if elected, saying repeatedly that he will not enforce the national health care law passed in 2010.
Instead, Romney stuck to criticizing Obama’s timing and disputing the president’s claim that his administration has given immigration reform its best effort. In an appearance on ABC Sunday, White House senior adviser David Plouffe justified Obama’s order by saying “we’ve tried as hard as we can to pass both the Dream Act and comprehensive immigration reform.’’
Romney asserted that Obama “did nothing on immigration’’ during the first 3 1/2 years of his term, and he pledged to “work with Congress to put in place a long-term solution for the children of those who have come here illegally.’’
But Romney declined five times to specify what he would do about Obama’s order. Democrats said Romney’s unwillingness to make a public commitment typifies his candidacy.
“It’s pretty much the same old, same old,’’ former Vermont governor Howard Dean said later on CBS. “They’re asking essentially the American people to elect Mitt Romney without him telling the people anything about what he’s going to do.’’
Romney’s unpopularity among Latinos has been attributed largely to his hard line on illegal immigration. His stated strategy is to make life so difficult for illegal immigrants in the US that they will choose to leave voluntarily.
“The answer is self-deportation,’’ Romney said during a debate in January, “which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can’t find work here because they don’t have legal documentation to allow them to work here.’’
The former Massachusetts governor has been working to improve his standing among Latino voters recently, releasing Spanish-language advertisements that argue his economic policies would serve Latinos better than Obama’s.
Romney is scheduled to speak Thursday at the annual convention of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Obama is to address the convention on Friday.