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Joan Vennochi

GOP cools on a hot-button issue

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / April 9, 2009
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THOSE OLD Republican hot buttons are growing cold. For proof, check out a recent interview with Mitt Romney, a former presidential candidate and ex-governor of Massachusetts.

According to TheHill.com, a congressional newspaper that publishes when Congress is in session, "Romney believes that one way to attract more minorities to the GOP is to pass immigration reform before the next election, saying the issue becomes demagogued by both parties on the campaign trail." The article also quotes Romney as saying, "We have a natural affinity with Hispanic-American voters, Asian-American voters."

This could be extreme political repositioning, even for Romney.

As governor of a blue state, he once said he favored a sensible path to citizenship. Then came the 2008 presidential campaign. During primary season, Romney hammered - you could say demagogued - rivals like John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Huckabee for being soft on illegal immigrants. As a national candidate, he embraced a ship-them-back-home, tough-guy approach, even after the Globe reported that he employed a landscaping company that relied on illegal Guatemalan immigrants to care for his own lawn. When US Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado - who made a tough stand on illegal immigrants the centerpiece of his presidential campaign - dropped out of the race, he endorsed Romney.

How Romney gets beyond the flip-flop-flips of his multiple-choice positions on immigration and other issues is a mystery only he can solve.

But any edging back to a call for immigration reform illustrates a larger point. Scapegoating immigrants was a losing strategy for Republicans in the 2008 presidential campaign; and Romney doesn't see it as a winning strategy in 2012.

"When you have someone like Romney publicly competing for the Latino vote, we have a game," said Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "When both parties are competing for the same constituency, then we have a chance to change the immigration system."

Immigration reform remains a complicated and emotion-laden issue, as illustrated by the recent case involving Zeituni Onyango, an aunt of President Obama. An immigration judge in Boston delayed a decision on Onyango's appeal for permanent residency in the United States until February 2010. She was ordered deported in 2004 but continued to live in public housing in South Boston.

Obama has said he did not know of his aunt's illegal status and pledged to stay out of her case, which aroused the usual heated talk from the usual talk-radio suspects.

The administration is adding immigration and customs agents to the border to help curb the flow of arms and cash in Mexico. New policy on raids of employers of illegal immigration is also said to be underway.

As a candidate, Obama supported immigration reform and a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country. But he is not immune from pressure from the anti-immigration crowd, especially in an economic downturn that puts so many citizen jobs at risk. The Obama administration recently pulled back from nominating Thomas Saenz, a civil rights lawyer and counsel to the mayor of Los Angeles, to run the Justice Department's civil rights division. The retreat on Saenz was a victory for anti-immigration groups, which opposed him because he led the successful fight to block a California ballot question that would have denied social services and schooling to illegal immigrants.

While Obama flinches on one side of the immigration debate, ambitious Republicans like Romney search for new middle ground. Stark numbers explain the refashioned political compass.

Four years ago, George W. Bush won reelection with 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Bush's ability to achieve that high-water mark of support was attributed to his embrace of immigration reform, despite pushback from his party's conservative base and some Democratic swing voters.

In 2008, Obama won the Hispanic vote, 68 percent to 31 percent. In battleground states like Florida, the shift to the Democrat provided the margin of victory.

Romney was never subtle about trying to catch the next wave. On immigration, he and the GOP were left high and dry.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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