By Mike Lillis - 10/04/12 09:59 PM EDT
Leading Democrats are attacking GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney for his evolving position on President Obama's new program to halt deportations for some young illegal immigrants.
The Democrats say Romney is playing election-year politics by vowing, as president, to continue the "deferred action" program for those enrolled under Obama, but to eliminate it for future applicants.
"First, he reluctantly said he would support young immigrants who benefit from Barack Obama's deferred action policy only because he didn't want to take away something they ‘purchased’ – as if the ability to live in the only country you've ever known is no more important than buying a sweater at the mall," Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said Thursday in a statement.
"Now he tells us it's just a one-day sale, by flip-flopping on his flip-flop the next day, saying that if he becomes president he will stop accepting applications.
"Every day Mitt Romney demonstrates more clearly that he is hostile to America's immigrants," Gutierrez charged.
The Obama campaign has lashed out as well.
"What, in Mitt Romney’s mind, makes a young immigrant less deserving of this temporary reprieve from deportation on January 20th than he is on October third?" Gabriela Domenzain, the Obama campaign's director of Hispanic press, said Wednesday in a statement.
"This latest clarification is yet another reminder to Hispanics that Mitt Romney is the most extreme presidential nominee on immigration in modern history and is against any sensible solution to fix our broken immigration system."
Romney's team was quick to push back, saying Obama has "failed miserably" on immigration and vowing that Romney will fight harder for comprehensive reforms that would make patchwork programs like the deferred-action initiative unnecessary.
"Mitt Romney will succeed where Barack Obama has failed miserably, by pushing for a permanent, workable solution for children brought to this country illegally through no fault of their own," Alberto Martinez, a Romney adviser, said Thursday in an email. "President Obama had four years to act on immigration reform and did nothing. He failed on immigration reform for the same reason he failed to create jobs and rein in the debt – President Obama is a weak leader who is more focused on politics than bettering our country."
The immigration issue has been prominent on the campaign trail this year, with both sides are scrambling to appeal to Hispanic voters. The fast-growing group of voters could be vital in a number of battleground states, including Florida, Colorado, Nevada and Virginia.
Launched over the summer by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Obama administration's deferred action program allows some high-achieving immigrants brought to the United States illegally as kids to stay and work in the country for two years. The concept is modeled on the Dream Act legislation that has been unable to pass Congress.
Romney had initially dodged questions about the DHS program, saying he would push comprehensive immigration reforms making the program irrelevant. But on Monday, he said he would honor deportation waivers granted under Obama.
"The people who have received the special visa that the president has put in place, which is a two-year visa, should expect that the visa would continue to be valid. I'm not going to take something that they've purchased," Romney told the Denver Post. "Before those visas have expired we will have the full immigration reform plan that I've proposed."
Later in the week, Romney's campaign clarified that the grandfathering would apply only to those illegal immigrants already accepted into the program. The news was first reported by the Boston Globe.
"He would honor any permits already issued through the President's stopgap deferred action measure," Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said Thursday in an email.
"But he will not continue the President's temporary measure and intends to supersede it as soon as possible with the permanent reform of our broken immigration system that is so badly needed."
Democrats pounced. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Romney's position would create "an unfortunate deadline" that would leave hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants dangling in fear of deportation.
"It’s hard to understand why he thinks that deporting hundreds of thousands of hard-working young people, who were brought as children to this country through no fault of their own, is good for the only nation they know and love," Reid said Wednesday in a statement.
The immigration issue has been a tough one for Romney. He adopted a hard-line on enforcement during the GOP primaries, attacking other Republicans — notably Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) — for being too lenient in their approach to deporting illegal immigrants.
Romney has since softened that stance. He outlined a plan in June that would offer permanent residency to some illegal immigrant students and create a path to citizenship for those who join the military, a move acknowledging the importance of the Hispanic vote.
Still, immigration reform advocates say they don't trust Romney's motives, fearing he'd be pressured by conservatives to move back to the right if he won the White House.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Thursday that Romney's softening position on immigration is merely "a convenient political move."