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."
Indeed, every effort over the past decade to pass broad immigration legislation has failed in Congress, regardless of which party has had control of the House, Senate and White House.
Moving to the middle
Throughout the Republican primary season, Mr. Romney staked out the stiffest pro-enforcement stance any major party political nominee had ever taken on illegal immigration, including calling for those in the country illegally to self-deport.
Until Monday, he repeatedly avoided saying what would happen to those who gained tentative status under Mr. Obama's non-deportation policy.
Asked four times in an appearance at a candidates forum hosted by Spanish-language network Univision and five times in an interview with Telemundo, Mr. Romney said only that he would push for broader immigration reform.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigrant rights group, said Mr. Romney is trying to make a careful appeal to Hispanic voters "without provoking a backlash from the hard right."
But Mr. Sharry said Mr. Romney has left big questions unanswered.
"The answer itself is carefully worded so that he leaves himself the option of closing down the initiative for those who haven't applied yet," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigrant rights group. "There's a big difference between keeping in place work permits for 100,000 who have already received them and keeping an initiative going that promises to protect 1.4 million people."
1.7 million potential stays
The Migration Policy Institute has estimated that more than 1.7 million illegal immigrants could qualify for deferred action. The New York Times reported last week that about 100,000 illegal immigrants have applied for deferred action but just 29 have been granted stays.
Mr. Romney's announcement also puts him on the opposite side of the issue from Kris Kobach, Kansas secretary of state and architect of Arizona's immigration crackdown laws, who has been an adviser to the Republican presidential nominee.
Mr. Kobach is representing 10 immigration agents who sued the Obama administration in August to try to overturn the two-year freeze on deportations. Mr. Kobach also told The Washington Times over the summer that he thought the directive is illegal.
He said then he thought Mr. Romney agreed, but was waiting for a more opportune time to say so publicly.
"When you are in an athletic event and you are winning, you are ahead, you don't take risk. Only someone who is losing and needs to take a risky strategy to gain ground," Mr. Kobach said at the time. "My guess is that if there is no need to give a very specific position and that can be addressed later if and when he wins the White House, maybe that is the idea."
Mr. Kobach didn't respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
• Seth McLaughlin reported from Washington.
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