COLUMBIA, S.C. — Mitt Romney collected the endorsements Wednesday of the architect of Arizona’s immigration-crackdown law, marking the final step on a journey that has taken him from lukewarm support of legalization to the Republican presidential field’s most ardent opponent of amnesty.
“Romney stands head and shoulders above the crowd,” Kris W. Kobach, Kansas’ secretary of state and the architect of the Arizona law, told The Washington Times, praising Mr. Romney for treading where other Republican candidates have refused to go. “Immigration is one of those issues that will appear to be a hot button — some elected officials who are afraid of offending anyone will avoid taking tough stands on immigration, and he took a tough stand.”
Mr. Kobach’s endorsement follows those of other leaders in the immigration crackdown movement, including Bay Buchanan, who ran Tom Tancredo’s presidential campaign in 2008 and who is the sister of former presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan.
It’s no surprise that the issue is popping up with 10 days to go before Republicans vote in South Carolina’s primary. South Carolina has passed its own Arizona-style law seeking to make illegal immigration a crime, giving state and local authorities police powers, and Republican primary voters in the state are overwhelmingly in favor of it.
The Obama administration has sued to halt the South Carolina and Arizona laws, as well as similar laws in Utah and Alabama, and those cases are winding their way through federal courts.
Mr. Romney and others in the Republican presidential field have said they support the states’ efforts, and Newt Gingrich on Wednesday told South Carolina voters that one of his first actions as president would be to drop the lawsuits.
Still, those who favor a crackdown on illegal immigration say Mr. Romney has emerged as their clear favorite over the past few years. He has embraced the use of E-Verify, the government’s voluntary system for checking work status; has talked about attrition of the numbers of illegal immigrants in the country through enforcement of laws; has called for building more border fencing; and has embraced state efforts to pick up enforcement where the federal government has failed.
Most of all, he adamantly vowed to block legalization bills. He recently said he would veto the Dream Act, which would grant legal status to illegal-immigrant students and young adults, who are usually considered the toughest cases because many of them were brought to the U.S. by parents and have never known any other country.
“He has held the line 100 percent on this amnesty stuff,” said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which grades the candidates on the issue.
Immigrant rights advocates said all of that makes for a stark contrast with Mr. Obama, and will make it tough for Mr. Romney to win Hispanic votes in November.
“Honestly, the Obama campaign must be doing high-fives. This guy is handing them the Hispanic vote when Obama is vulnerable with Hispanic voters,” said Frank Sharry, founder of immigrant rights advocacy group America’s Voice. “To me, it’s political malfeasance. He should be charged and found guilty by a jury of his peers.”
Mr. Sharry said Mr. Romney has changed on this issue. Before his first presidential campaign, he complimented President George W. Bush’s legalization plans and praised Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who led the Senate fight for legalization.
But by the end of his time as governor of Massachusetts, Mr. Romney had vetoed a bill offering in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants and signed an agreement with federal authorities that would have allowed state and local police to assist in immigration enforcement. In the 2008 campaign, he ran ads in Iowa attacking Mr. McCain on immigration.