By Mike Lillis - 06/21/12 09:47 PM EDT
Rep. Luis Gutierrez bashed Mitt Romney's immigration plan Thursday, saying the GOP presidential hopeful offers "nothing" to the Hispanic community.
The Illinois Democrat, Congress's loudest proponent of immigrant rights and immigration reform, said Romney's much-awaited speech on immigration can't undo the hard-line stand against illegal immigrants he took in the GOP primaries.
The immigration issue has become a pronounced one on the campaign trail this year, as Romney went after his primary opponents — notably Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) — for their more lenient approaches to addressing illegal immigrants in the country.
President Obama fueled the flames last week when the administration announced that, starting immediately, it will forgo deportations of qualified illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
The policy does not go as far as the proposed DREAM Act — which would allow beneficiaries to eventually become U.S. citizens — but it does offer the chance for younger illegal immigrants to stay and work without fear of exile.
Obama's maneuver created a dilemma for Republican leaders, who are scrambling to find a way to appeal to the ever-growing number of Hispanic voters without alienating a conservative base that supports immediate deportation for all illegal immigrants. Indeed, Romney spent the last six days dodging questions about whether, if elected president, he'd repeal Obama's lenient new policy.
The silence wasn't lost on Democrats, who recognize immigration as one of the former Massachusetts governor's most prominent vulnerabilities.
"It is a model for the problem Romney and the Republicans have on so many other issues," Gutierrez said. "They are scared of their strongest supporters, which makes it difficult to imagine the Republicans will succeed with other, more centrist voters."
Speaking Thursday to a group of Hispanic leaders in Florida, Romney finally broke some of that silence, vowing to fight for comprehensive reform — which has eluded presidents in both parties for decades — and outlining a plan that would offer permanent residency for illegal immigrants who get "advanced degrees" in math and science, and a path to citizenship for those who join the military.
“As president, I will stand for a path to legal status for anyone who is willing to stand up and defend this great nation through military service,” Romney said.
Still, Romney continued to duck the question of how he'd approach Obama's new deportation policy, saying only that his comprehensive plan would make the executive action unnecessary.
“Some people have asked if I will let stand the president’s executive action,” he 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 scheduled to speak at the same venue Friday.