CHESAPEAKE, Va. — Mitt Romney on Tuesday appeared to open new avenues for illegal immigrants to get legal status, but his campaign seemed to close that door somewhat on Wednesday, saying the only path he’s identified is still requiring illegal immigrants to join the U.S. military.
In Tuesday’s debate, the Republican presidential nominee, who has struggled to reconcile his hard-line stance on illegal immigration with campaign efforts to woo Hispanic voters, said he wanted to find a way to give permanent status to young adult illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
“The kids of those that came here illegally, those kids I think should have a pathway to become a permanent resident of the United States,” Mr. Romney said, adding that asking them to serve in the U.S. military was “one way they would have that kind of pathway.”
On Wednesday, though, his campaign stressed that he’s still only backing the military pathway right now.
“He wasn’t announcing any new policy last night. The path he’s identified is via military service,” said spokesman Kyle Downey. “Mitt Romney believes that young illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children should have the chance to become permanent residents, and eventually citizens, by serving honorably in the United States military.”
It matters immensely. Estimates for how many illegal immigrants could qualify under the military option range from several hundred up to the tens of thousands, depending on how the program is drawn.
But that’s a long way from the estimated 1.7 million illegal immigrants that could earn tentative legal status under President Obama’s new nondeportation policy or under the Dream Act — legislation that would have granted a full path to citizenship to most illegal immigrants 30 and under.
Mr. Romney has kept a studiously ambiguous stance on immigration throughout the general election — repeatedly raising and then dashing hopes of Dreamers, as those who would have qualified for the Dream Act are known.
“Classic Romney stuff,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which advocates for immigrant rights. “Says something that seems like you can project onto it what you want, but you can’t really be sure.”
Mr. Sharry said Mr. Romney “strains not to say” what he’d actually do — though he said during the primary Mr. Romney was a lot more clear, saying that he would veto the Dream Act.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Romney told the Denver Post he would not cancel the stays of deportation Mr. Obama issues under his nondeportation policy, but the next day his campaign said that a Romney administration wouldn’t approve any new applications either.
Mr. Romney at the debate also defended his stance during the primaries that he thinks illegal immigrants should self-deport, though he portrayed that as an option they could choose, rather than something he would necessarily encourage.
Kris Kobach, the architect of tough illegal immigrant crackdown laws in Arizona and other states, said Mr. Romney struck the right balance.
“He said that we should make it hard for illegal aliens to obtain jobs and taxpayer-subsidized benefits. If we do so, illegal aliens will leave of their own accord. Evidently, President Obama thinks that’s a bad idea. Obama is completely out of step with the American public on the immigration issue,” said Mr. Kobach, who is Kansas’ secretary of state.
“I predict that [Mr. Obama’s] statements in the debate will further alienate independent voters who are concerned about the millions of Americans who have lost jobs to illegal aliens.”
On Wednesday, the Romney campaign and the Republican National Committee attacked Mr. Obama on the issue, announcing they would run an ad in Spanish that accused the president of failing to live up to his promise to pass an immigration bill in his first term.
In the ad, the announcer promises Mr. Romney will “achieve permanent solutions for undocumented youth,” though the ad doesn’t say who would benefit or what conditions they would have to meet.
Mr. Obama’s nondeportation policy could apply to as many as 1.7 million illegal immigrants age 30 and under who have avoided major criminal records. They would get documentation saying they will not be deported, and would get work permits from the federal government.
According to dacafacts.com, a website hosted by Numbers USA, which opposes Mr. Obama’s policy, the government has received 179,794 applications so far, has approved 4,591 and has only requested follow-up evidence in just seven cases.