Why won't media allow Romney the third option on illegal population?

Nowhere is this false dichotomy more apparent than in the media treatment of Mitt Romney's immigration stance.  Even though no candidate has talked more about the details of dealing with the 11 million, the common journalistic description is that Romney tells us what he opposes (amnesty) for them but not what he proposes to do with them.

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The problem for Romney is that he supports a third option widely known as “attrition through enforcement” that doesn’t include mass deportation and legalization.  Romney should get no credit for innovation in that he merely is expressing the overriding philosophy of most Republican Members of Congress (and many Democrats). But he should at least get credit for having a position.

A brief survey of last week’s reporting illustrates:  A front-page Washington Post story stated that while Romney blasted Newt Gingrich’s recent debate support for legalizing an unspecified number of illegal residents, Romney “has not given a clear answer on what he would do.

The Boston Globe reported that “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.”

But the details of making “the country less hospitable” are the essence of attrition through enforcement, an explicit solution.

Ironically, the Globe quoted Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom summarizing what the candidate has been saying all year: “You turn off the magnets - no in-state tuition, no benefits of any kind, no employment. 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. . . . they will go to their native countries.’’ Despite that rather full description of the attrition option, the Globe wrote: “But Fehrnstrom declined to answer repeated questions about what Romney would do with the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the country.”

Bret Baier showed a similar state of denial in his Fox interview.

Romney said that he would not promise legalization to any of the 11 million and that those who want a chance to live and work here should go back home, get in the back of the application lines and go through the same process as any other foreign citizen seeking to qualify for legal immigration. Baier immediately responded: “The question is what you do with the 11 million plus people who are already here and how you handle them.” Because Romney had not advocated mass deportations or legalization, Baier apparently could not see that Romney had already given him the answer.

When journalism in so many different quarters is this resistant to even acknowledging the existence of a political option, it often is because journalists are imprisoned within an out-of-date template for how an issue is to be discussed – a template that few journalists even are aware exists, let alone that it controls their ability to fairly report.

Romney’s communication skills bear some responsibility for not busting up that template. It would help, for example, if he would routinely – if not always – use the term “attrition through enforcement” to provide a label to his solutions. It would also help if he would explain that advocates of attrition are willing to accept that a large but dwindling number of foreign citizens will remain with illegal status in this country for several years but, because they will be less and less able to obtain jobs and benefits, their harm to American workers and taxpayers will be minimized.

Journalists need to hear a clear and powerful voice for attrition like that of the pro-legalization forces who have been selling the two-choice template ever since the grassroots uprising defeated President George W. Bush’s mass legalization efforts in 2006 and 2007. 

The losers in that battle have argued that anybody unwilling to give illegal immigrants permanent residence and job permits is proposing mass roundups and deportations. This has been accepted by nearly every news organization’s polls which offer a choice between only deportation and legalization. When forced to choose one of the two, the majority of Americans generally choose legalization. But a Zogby poll during this economic downturn found that when offered all three options, Americans much preferred attrition through enforcement over the other two. No wonder legalization advocates fight to keep the attrition option hidden. Journalists, however, are taking sides in a debate when they exclude it.

Beck is President and Founder of NumbersUSA.