By Mike Lillis - 06/23/12 05:00 PM EDT
Republican hardliners in both chambers are holding their tongues over Mitt Romney’s plan to grant qualified illegal immigrants legal status and even U.S. citizenship.
Similar proposals in the past have led to charges from these conservatives that the beneficiaries would be rewarded with “amnesty” after entering the country illegally. They’ve called instead for tougher enforcement and the deportation of all illegal immigrants.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who’s long been critical of “amnesty” proposals like the DREAM Act, praised Romney’s plan this week, saying it was “right to recognize that immigration reform needs to be geared towards bolstering our economy and job creation.”
Smith blamed President Obama’s economic policies for high unemployment among Hispanics, and he blasted the administration’s recent executive action allowing some illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to stay and work, saying it’s “amnesty” that will “further diminish job opportunities for Hispanics struggling to find a job.”
But the Texas conservative made no mention of Romney’s proposal to extend permanent residency to qualified illegal immigrant students and forge a pathway to citizenship for those who join the military. The latter provision goes even a step further than Obama’s executive directive, which does not include the possibility of citizenship.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), another DREAM Act opponent, also praised Romney’s plan without mentioning the “amnesty” provisions.
“I applaud Governor Romney’s commitment to working to improve our broken immigration system,” he said. “America has been, and remains, a welcoming country for legal immigration. But the President’s last-minute, election-year ploy can’t erase the fact that he has failed to lead.”
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), among Congress’s most vocal opponents of illegal immigrant rights, was also notably uncritical of Romney’s plan, telling The Wall Street Journal that he’s happy to see Romney advocating for tougher enforcement policies at the border. While King said he has questions about some parts of the plan, according to the Journal, he also expressed confidence that Romney is “committed to the rule of law.”
The offices of a number of other immigration hardliners —including Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), and Reps. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) and Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.) – did not respond to requests for comment on Romney’s plan.
The immigration issue has been a prominent one in this year’s presidential race, with both sides vying for a bigger slice of the ever-growing Latino vote. Romney has started at a disadvantage because he tacked far to the right amid the GOP primary, vowing to veto the DREAM Act and proposing to make life so tough for illegal immigrants that they would “self deport.”
Recognizing an opening, Obama last week overhauled his immigration policy, announcing he will forego deportations for qualified high-achievers brought to the U.S. before the age of 16 – roughly the same population targeted by the DREAM Act.
The surprise move left Romney and other GOP leaders scrambling for a strategy to counter the new policy without alienating either Latinos or their conservative base.
On Friday, Romney sought to thread that needle, releasing the contours of a plan that’s both tough on the enforcement side and more lenient to some illegal immigrants than many conservatives want to go.
Characterizing comprehensive immigration reform as a “moral imperative” and an “economic necessity,” Romney proposed to increase the number of border patrol agents, make e-verify mandatory for employers, complete the fence along the Mexican border and advance an exit-verification system designed to identify and deport legal visitors who overstay their visas — all ideas sure to win favor from conservatives.
Hoping to appeal to Latinos, Romney also offered green cards to “every foreign student who obtains an advanced degree in math, science, or engineering.” For those entering the military, his plan goes further.
“Mitt Romney believes that young illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children should have the chance to become permanent residents, and eventually citizens, by serving honorably in the United States military,” reads the Romney campaign’s fact sheet on the plan.
Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, which advocates for tougher immigration laws, welcomed the plan, praising Romney for resisting temptations to walk back his primary promises to veto the DREAM Act, finish the border fence and mandate an e-verify system. Beck called this restraint “quite remarkable” given that Romney unveiled his plan before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEAO).
Still, foreshadowing the likely push-back from conservatives on Capitol Hill, Beck said “there are things we oppose and we will oppose” in Romney’s proposal, particularly the notion of providing green cards to recipients of advanced degrees.
“The idea that somehow or another we need more legal immigrants,” Beck said Friday in a telephone interview, “is kind of preposterous.”