I've watched with some bafflement this past week as former Gov. Mitt Romney created his latest position of convenience, this time on the issue of illegal immigration.
First, let's address the most obvious of the problems with Mr. Romney's recent aggressiveness on this issue: the utter hypocrisy of it. The Mitt Romney seen on the national campaign trail can't seem to talk enough about his newfound toughness on illegal immigration, which will come as a surprise to many of the residents of Massachusetts who rarely heard a word on this issue while Mr. Romney occupied the corner office. While the new Mitt Romney, campaigning for president, insists he is the candidate best credentialed to control this country's problem of illegal immigration, many of you may remember that under Mr. Romney, the illegal-immigrant population boomed in the commonwealth, illegal immigrants performed the former governor's yardwork and sanctuary cities in Massachusetts went unchecked.
It is, I think, a fairly modest understatement to say that before he was openly interested in the presidency, Mr. Romney was quite disinterested in illegal immigration as a whole.
Mr. Romney's recent immigration comments and his focus on "sanctuary cities" are especially baffling. "Sanctuary cities," Mr. Romney seems to believe, are at the very root of the illegal immigration problem.
But there is, once again, a bit of history that makes this promise more than a little unconvincing. As governor, Mr. Romney wielded control over a significant budget and oversaw three cities that were proud of their designation as "sanctuary cities": Cambridge, Somerville and Orleans. Yet as governor, Mr. Romney did not cut their funding. He recommended millions of dollars in state funding for them, and made no attempt to force these cities to change their policies. When he had the opportunity to actually effect change on a problem he now rates as a priority, Mr. Romney's actions were far louder than his words.
Contrast that with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who spoke out on the problem of illegal immigration while in office with a clear focus on the safety and security of city residents. And while Mr. Giuliani very publicly called on the federal government to enforce immigration laws, he also faced an extreme situation of a city with an overflow illegal-immigrant population and a city-wide crime crisis.
When Mr. Giuliani took control of New York City in 1994, it was ridden with crime, was home to 2,000 murders a year and 10,000 felonies a week. It was also home to 400,000 illegal immigrants, of which the INS, in spite of Rudy's persistent protests, would deport no more than 2,000 a year. The security of the citizens of New York was, as it had to be, his primary concern. And so, to protect his citizens' public health and safety, Mr. Giuliani continued to allow illegal aliens to report crimes to the authorities to ensure criminals were taken off the streets. He also allowed illegal aliens to seek medical care so infectious diseases were not spread throughout the city, and children were allowed into the schools rather than left roaming the streets as unsupervised truants.
It worked. As happened so often during his tenure in New York, Mr. Giuliani solved a problem others deemed unsolvable. Crime decreased by 57 percent. Murders fell by 67 percent. And New York became a city second to none in terms of crime, safety and dealing with illegality of all different kinds. It was, and remains, America's safest large city.
In Mayor Giuliani we have a proven leader, a problem-solver long committed to the security and welfare of his constituents. We also have a man who, as far back as 1981, was pushing for a federal focus on border security and potentially criminal illegal immigrants.
Mr. Romney's story is a different one. When the immigration issue came before him, he simply ignored it — whether it be Cambridge, Orleans, Somerville or even a rally of illegal aliens demonstrating at the state capitol. His immigration bona fides rest on the "deputization" of the state police that would allow them to arrest illegal immigrants — a law signed less than three weeks before he left office and was never implemented.
As governor, illegal immigration clearly wasn't on his radar screen. Now, he is running for president, and it clearly is. But Mr. Romney's candidacy, and the political significance of illegal immigration in today's America, should not excuse his exploitation of a very important issue on which he has no record — save empty, shifting rhetoric — to speak of.
Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, is an eight-term member of the House of Representatives and ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security.