P/cloudy
56°
P/cloudy
Hi 77° | Lo 53°

Romney's stand on immigration varied

Attacks knock view he seemed to back

Before his first run for president four years ago, Mitt Romney appeared to support allowing some illegal immigrants to remain in the country while they sought citizenship - an approach he now criticizes Newt Gingrich for advocating.

When Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, said during a debate last week that undocumented immigrants with longstanding community ties should be allowed to stay, Romney and fellow Republican candidate Michele Bachmann charged that Gingrich was proposing a program of "amnesty."

"To say that we're going to say to the people who have come here illegally that now you're all going to get to stay, or some large number are going to get to stay and become permanent residents of the United States, that will only encourage more people to do the same thing," Romney said.

In March 2006, Romney, then governor of Massachusetts, told reporters in Washington he did not believe in amnesty for illegal immigrants but did think they should be registered and begin seeking citizenship, according to a report in The Sun newspaper of Lowell, Mass.

"I don't believe in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from our country," Romney said. "With these 11 million people, let's have them registered, know who they are. Those who've been arrested or convicted of crimes shouldn't be here. Those that are here paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process towards an application for citizenship, as they would from their home country."

Bloomberg News reported yesterday that Romney had described the same policy in an interview with reporters and editors in the news agency's Washington bureau. Romney said law-abiding people who pay taxes, learn English and do not use government benefits should be allowed to begin applying for citizenship, Bloomberg reported.

"We need to begin a process of registering those people, some being returned, and some beginning the process of applying for citizenship and establishing legal status," Romney told Bloomberg on March 29, 2006, the same day as his comments reported by the Sun.

A spokesman for Romney said yesterday that the candidate has been consistent in his position on immigration. Romney believes people who came to the country illegally must return to their home country while seeking U.S. citizenship, said spokesman Ryan Williams.

"They would have to go through the normal process to obtain citizenship and must return to their home country," Williams said.

At town hall meetings in New Hampshire, voters often ask Romney what he would do about illegal immigration. During a meeting in Wolfeboro in early July, Romney told voters, as he typically does, that he welcomes immigration.

"The more the merrier," Romney said. "I like people being able to come here legally. On the other hand, I want to stop illegal immigration."

Romney went on to tell the Wolfeboro audience that there should be no special pathway to permanent residency for people who have violated immigration laws, but he said he does not plan to seek out and deport all illegal immigrants.

"I'm not calling for rounding up everybody who's here illegally and putting them in buses and shipping home 10, 12, 20 million people," he said. "But I am saying we have to have a system that does two things. One, we secure the border and, number two, we crack down on employers who hire people who are here illegally. Those two things, we will solve our problem."

At another town hall meeting, this one in Salem in October, Romney said the government should build a border fence to prevent future illegal immigration. The government can both prevent illegal immigration and address the current population of undocumented immigrants by imposing heavy sanctions on employers who hire them, he said.

"If people can't get work here, they won't want to be here, unless they're criminals," he told the audience at the Derry-Salem Elks Club.

As governor, Romney signed an agreement allowing state troopers to enforce federal immigration laws. He also vetoed legislation that would have given in-state tuition discounts to illegal immigrants.

During his first campaign for president, Romney used the label "amnesty" to target Republican primary opponent John McCain for his support of an immigration reform bill that included a path for illegal immigrants to gain legal status. This time around, Romney has criticized Texas Gov. Rick Perry for supporting a state program that allows the children of illegal immigrants to receive the tuition discounts available to residents at state universities.

In Iowa, where Romney appears to be strengthening his efforts, voters have received mailers declaring Romney "the strongest Republican to beat Barack Obama and end illegal immigration," according to the Des Moines Register.

Gingrich, meanwhile, has promoted his immigration plan and tried to portray Romney as reversing his position. In a Twitter post last week, Gingrich pointed viewers to a clip from a 2007 interview on Meet the Press, in which Romney was asked to explain his quote in the Lowell Sun.

"Those people who had come here illegally and are in this country - the 12 million or so that are here illegally - should be able to stay, sign up for permanent residency or citizenship, but they should not be given a special pathway, a special guarantee that all of them get to stay here for the rest of their lives merely by virtue of having come here illegally," Romney said in the interview, according to a transcript.

On the Gingrich campaign website, the top item in the "solutions" section presents a 10-step plan for addressing illegal immigration. These include securing the border, creating a secure and efficient visa program and, as he mentioned in the debate, creating a path to legal status for law-abiding undocumented immigrants who have deep ties to family, church and community. Those immigrants would have to pass a background check, show they can support themselves, demonstrate English proficiency and pay a fine.

A spokesman for Gingrich said only a small percentage of current illegal immigrants would likely be allowed to stay.

"It's likely the vast majority of them would self-deport," said spokesman R.C. Hammond. He said a "very small percentage" of people would end up staying in the United States under the Gingrich proposal.

Hammond said Romney's position on immigration is evidence of flip-flopping.

"Mitt Romney's stances on some issues are like the weather in New Hampshire," he said. "If you don't like it, just wait 20 minutes. It will change."

(Karen Langley can be reached at 369-3316 or klangley@cmonitor.com.)