LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Mitt Romney sought to broaden his appeal among Hispanic voters Thursday afternoon, recasting some of the hard-line positions he took during the heated Republican primary race on the divisive topic of immigration.
The former Massachusetts governor, calling immigration reform “a moral imperative,” said he would help immigrants reunite with their families and would allow more temporary work visas. Immigrants who earn advanced degrees at an American university would also earn a green card. And he reiterated support for providing legal status to immigrants in the military.
At the same time, he vowed to complete a 2,000-mile fence along the border to keep illegal immigrants out.
The speech was a significant departure from the blunt rhetoric Romney adopted during the Republican primary race, when he said illegal immigrants should go through “self-deportation” and leave the United States. At the time, he also criticized rivals Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich for policies seen as friendly to immigrants, and he said he would veto the Dream Act, which would create a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants.
“We can find common ground here, and we must,” Romney said Thursday before a gathering at Walt Disney World by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “We owe it to ourselves as Americans to ensure that our country remains a land of opportunity – both for those who were born here and for those who share our values, respect our laws, and want to come to our shores.”
The remarks were Romney’s most extensive since President Obama – who will address the same group Friday — announced a shift in policy last week that has been hailed by immigrant advocate groups. Obama bypassed Congress to immediately stop certain deportations and instead grant work permits to an estimated 800,000 younger illegal immigrants.
The move has significantly complicated Romney’s efforts to reach out to Hispanics. His advisers have scrambled in recent days, trying to determine a proper response that would both differentiate Romney from Obama without disparaging Obama’s policy, which polls show has popular support.
Romney on Thursday called Obama’s policy “a temporary measure that he seems to think will be just enough to get him through the election.” He suggested that he would rescind Obama’s order and replace it with something new.
“Some people have asked if I will let stand the president’s executive action,” Romney said. “The answer is that I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president’s temporary measure.”
Obama is expected to be generally well-received when he addresses the crowd Friday, although some may fault him for not making the return trip as president that he promised the organization during his 2008 campaign.
Friday will be the first time a sitting president addresses the Latino group. Obama has also been criticized for not making immigration reform a higher priority for his administration.
Polls give Obama a dominant 2-to-1 advantage among Hispanic voters — who are making up an increasing portion of the electorate in key swing states like Colorado, Nevada, and Florida – and Romney has significant ground to make up.
In recent weeks, Romney’s growing team of Hispanic advisers has been trying to figure out how to soften his image and help define him more by what he is proposing than what he is opposing.
In his speech, Romney said it was crucial to keep educated immigrants in the United States. He cited statistics that show that immigrants are more likely to start a business.
“If you get an advanced degree here, we want you to stay here – so we will staple a green card to your diploma,” Romney said. “We want the best and brightest to enrich the nation through the jobs and technologies they will help create.”
Romney also said he would work with Congress to give legal permanent residents the same priority as US citizens when applying to bring their spouses or young children to the United States.
While Romney talked about securing the border, and making it easier for immigrants to stay in the country through visas or green cards, he never addressed what many believe is the thorniest question around immigration: what to do about the estimated 11.5 million immigrants currently in the country illegally.
Romney also did not bring up the Dream Act, which has been the primary legislative vehicle for immigration reform. That plan, pushed by the Democrats, would provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who came here as children and meet certain requirements, such as having graduated from high school.
Romney used his father’s story to try to connect with immigrants, something he hasn’t frequently done.
“He was born to American parents living in Mexico,” Romney said of his father, George, who later became governor of Michigan. “When he was 5, they left everything behind, and started over in the United States.”
Romney didn’t mention the reason that his father was born in Mexico, however. His father’s grandfather – Mitt’s great-grandfather – fled the United States to escape laws against polygamy and establish a colony in Mexico where some of Romney’s distant relatives still live.
Democrats criticized Romney’s speech even before it began. Bill Burton, founder of Priorities USA Action, the super PAC backing Obama, said the speech was “an attempt to cover up the divisive rhetoric and Draconian policies he has espoused for years on immigration.”
“Today’s slick speech will not change the fact that Romney has repeatedly used divisive language to propose an extreme immigration policy,” Burton wrote in a memo to reporters about an hour before the speech began.
The reaction from the crowd inside the Fantasia Ballroom was mixed. During Romney’s 17-minute speech he was met with only light applause and, in one instance, a few boos when he said he would repeal Obama’s health care law. Attendees said they had been encouraged during morning policy sessions to be respectful, and not boo.
“It was a great speech,” said former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has been critical of his party’s tepid efforts to reach out to Hispanic voters. “I was real impressed with it. I’m glad he came. I really am.”
Other said while Romney was improving his efforts, he still had a long way to go.
“I thought he had the opportunity to hit a home run. He didn’t,” said Fernando Guerra, a professor at Loyola Marymount University. “He didn’t strike out, either. It was a safe speech.”
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.