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MITT ROMNEY’S softer tone on immigration ­— and especially his declaration that comprehensive reform is a “moral imperative” ­­— is welcome. But his speech last Thursday before a group of Hispanic elected officials was far too vague to provide confidence that he would be able to follow through on such reforms as president.

Critics have justifiably focused on Romney’s harsh comments during the Republican primaries, when he criticized Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich for being too accommodating of illegal immigrants. Romney also vowed that he would secure the border, presumably with a 2,000-mile fence, before considering a wider plan for dealing with illegal workers in the United States, and he has resisted the most obvious solution — allowing at least some of the undocumented workers to stay in the country on guest-worker visas. This is the only way to lure them out of the shadows and get a full accounting of the problem.

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So before Romney’s promise of a “long-term” solution should be given full credence, he needs to answer some questions: Would he be willing to negotiate a comprehensive solution before a fence is built? Would he support a guest-worker program? Those questions don’t even address the biggest stumbling block: extremists in his own party, who’ve successfully blocked every attempt to enact comprehensive reform — even by George W. Bush and John McCain. Can Romney really appease the right wing in a way that Bush and McCain could not?

Bush’s inability to enact comprehensive reform in the face of a conservative-led filibuster obviously influenced President Obama’s decision to hold off on making his own big push. Now, Romney is accusing Obama of making an insufficient effort. But how and when Romney would exert himself remains in doubt.

What’s most frustrating about Romney’s dance on this issue is that, as vexing as the problem of illegal immigration may be, the plan hammered out by Bush, McCain, and Ted Kennedy remains the most viable way forward, combining border enforcement with a guest-worker program and a “path to citizenship” for those willing to return to their homelands and get in line. Romney supported that formula initially, then turned on it. If Romney would finally embrace the Bush-McCain-Kennedy plan, real progress would be possible. But before handing him the keys to the Oval Office, voters should know whether he will or won’t.

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Doing so would, of course, expose uncomfortable fissures in the Republican coalition. Some of the most furious critics of comprehensive reform resist a guest-worker program not for reasons of law and order, but to reduce the number of Mexicans in the United States. That’s the ugly truth that Romney sought to evade in his speech to Hispanic officials, and that he’s evading in his approach to the entire issue of illegal immigration.