Leave it to an undecided U.S. voter to force Mitt Romney to do what journalists the country over have been largely struggling to do for months—pin the GOP presidential hopeful down on his immigration agenda. Romney again reminded voters, despite his smooth talking, that he would pursue a plan even more aggressively anti-immigrant and hawkish than President Obama, who has deported a record-breaking 1.4 million immigrants during his presidency.
For starters, if elected president, Romney would support a federal military-only DREAM Act law which gives immigrant youth at most a green card. Such a move is in line with the Republican Party’s narrowing of the decade-old legalization bill for undocumented youth. But it’s a sharp departure from the DREAM Act’s long history as a bipartisan bill which would allow undocumented youth who commit two years to the military or higher education and clear a host of other prerequisites to be eligible for eventual citizenship. Romney’s plan would gut the DREAM Act. But furthermore, in Romney’s vision immigrant youth would have to put their lives at risk to fight for the country, but ought not to be given the right to vote in exchange.
Perhaps the biggest whammy of the night on immigration came when Romney interrupted President Obama, who was in the middle of describing Republican obstruction of any effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform that extended beyond enforcement-only policies. He talked over the president, claiming with what sounded like a retort and a move of uncalculated desperation at the same time, “I’ll get it done. I’ll get it done. First year.” As in, Romney pledged to get comprehensive immigration reform, a task that’s proven too difficult for the last two presidents, done in the first year. It was a bold statement. But, as Obama well knows, hardly the kind of thing worth throwing out casually. Obama made that same promise while he was campaigning in 2008, but repeatedly, and as a pledge to immigrant communities. It’s something immigrant communities won’t soon forget.
But Romney wouldn’t stop there. Romney again touted his intent to apply a “self-deportation” policy frame. “Self-deportation” is immigration restrictionists’ favored term for what’s more widely known as “enforcement through attrition,” which seeks to kick immigrants out of a community by making life so difficult for them that they leave on their own without deportation. The best-known application of the framework is in Arizona’s SB 1070 and its copycats like Alabama’s HB 56, which, aside from allowing police officers to stop, question and detain anyone they suspect may be undocumented, criminalizes nearly every aspect of life for undocumented immigrants—driving a car or even riding in someone else’s car; renting property; working; even, as in the case of Alabama’s law, instituting data collection which discouraged kids from going to school.
In Romney’s own words:
“[S]elf-deportation says let people make their own choice. What I was saying is, we’re not going to round up 12 million people, undocumented illegals, and take them out of the nation. Instead let people make their own choice. And if they — if they find that — that they can’t get the benefits here that they want and they can’t — and they can’t find the job they want, then they’ll make a decision to go a place where — where they have better opportunities. But I’m not in favor of rounding up people and — and — and taking them out of this country. I am in favor, as the president has said, and I agree with him, which is that if people have committed crimes we got to get them out of this country.
Romney would have voters believe he’s the more compassionate of the two presidential candidates on immigration because he believes in immigrants’ agency to take a hint when he doesn’t want them around and kick themselves out of the country.