DENVER — Moving to soften his immigration stance ever so slightly, Mitt Romney said this week he will not immediately deport the illegal immigrants granted tentative legal status by President Obama — and the Republican nominee also set a soft deadline for getting a broader immigration bill done in 18 months.
Mr. Romney had previously refused to say whether he would allow Mr. Obama’s non-deportation policy to stand, but on Monday he told The Denver Post that those who received “deferred action” — an official notice that they have a two-year reprieve from deportation — “should expect the visa to continue to be valid” if he is elected.
The move comes as polling shows Mr. Romney trailing badly among Hispanic voters ahead of next month’s election, and seems designed to convince them he will make exceptions to the hard-line crackdown he promised during the Republican primary debates.
“The people who have received the special visa that the president has put in place, which is a two-year visa, should expect that the visa would continue to be valid. I’m not going to take something that they’ve purchased,” Mr. Romney told the Denver newspaper. “Before those visas have expired, we will have the full immigration reform plan that I’ve proposed.”
Mr. Obama’s plan, known as “deferred action,” took effect Aug. 15, and gives a two-year stay of deportation to illegal immigrants who qualify. That means Mr. Romney has effectively given himself a soft deadline of summer 2014 to get an immigration bill through Congress.
Mr. Obama made a similar pledge in 2008, promising action in his first year in the White House, but he failed to deliver, drawing the ire of Hispanic activists.
He had to play catch-up by issuing his deferred action policy earlier this summer. Then on Monday, the White House said Mr. Obama also will travel to California next week to declare a Cesar E. Chavez National Monument — a move that drew plaudits from Hispanic groups that consider the founder of the United Farm Workers labor union to be a pioneer of Hispanics’ rights.
The non-deportation policy allows illegal immigrants 30 and younger who were brought to the U.S. by age 16 and who have not committed any major crimes to apply for deferred action. The administration will issue work permits to the immigrants as well — though it says they technically do not have solid legal status.
Those eligible for the program are often called Dreamers, after the failed Dream Act legislation in Congress that would have legalized them and granted them a path to citizenship.
Mr. Romney did not say whether he would continue issuing stays of deportation, but said only that he would honor the stays Mr. Obama has granted.
Cesar Vargas, a Dream Act advocate, said most of those in the affected community expected that Mr. Romney wouldn’t try to deport those who have been granted stays.
It will be tougher for Mr. Romney to keep his promise to have broader legislation enacted before the stays expire beginning in August 2014.
“Who knows what the 113th Congress is going to look like? Mr. Vargas said. “At this point, with less than 40 days [until the election], it’s a little bit of a talking point.”