WASHINGTON—When immigration finally came up as a topic in a presidential debate, Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s response earned him the title of Cynic-in-Chief. He continued to attack President Barack Obama for failing to pass an immigration reform bill that neither he nor the Republican Party supports; he said that he doesn’t plan to “round up” 12 million undocumented immigrants and deport them, even though his campaign immigration adviser, Kris Kobach, is the architect of Arizona law SB 1070 and of the concept of making life so impossible for immigrants that they opt to “self-deport” instead (a concept Romney also supports); and yet again—as he’s taken to doing every time he discusses the issue—he mentioned that his father was born in Mexico.
The Cynic-in-Chief was able to get away with the same thing he always does: responding in generalities. He managed to avoid saying what, exactly, he plans to do with the 12 million undocumented; he managed to say yet again that there needs to be a path to permanent status for undocumented young people, or DREAMers, without explaining exactly how he would create one (with the exception of specifying that military service could be one possible path to status).
Obama, who improved on his performance from the last debate simply by showing up to this one, hit all the right points: Romney supports “self-deportation;” Romney has promised to veto the DREAM Act, which would create the very path to legalization for undocumented youth that Romney claims he wants to create; Romney has said that Arizona’s SB 1070 is a model for the nation. Romney attempted to contest the last point by clarifying that his “model” comment referred to a separate Arizona law mandating the E-Verify system to check workers’ status, to which Obama responded by pointing out that the man who designed SB 1070 is now an immigration adviser to Romney’s campaign.
On the subject of the DREAM Act and the Deferred Action program announced by Obama in June, which grants temporary protection to DREAMers in the absence of legislative action, Romney has said that his administration would honor work permits already given to DREAMers before his inauguration, but he would immediately stop granting new permits in favor of promoting a legislative (and, of course, as-yet-unspecified) “permanent solution”.
The president responded that he, too, has been looking for a permanent and bipartisan immigration solution, but he hasn’t managed to gain support from Republicans—even those who have supported reform in the past.
“It’s very difficult for Republicans in Congress to support immigration reform if their standard-bearer [Romney] has said this is not something I’m interested in supporting,” Obama pointed out.
While the president has his own cross to bear on immigration—he is still trying to atone for his unfulfilled 2008 promise to introduce reform in his first year, and his administration has set deportation records—he demonstrated last night that he was on the right side of the argument, while his ambivalent opponent, Romney, looked so uncomfortable even talking about immigration that he took the opportunity at one point to respond to a previous question about his investments.
Obama was correct in saying that it’s very hard to make progress on an issue that’s been politicized—which is exactly what Romney is doing in faulting Obama for not presenting an immigration reform bill Republicans weren’t going to support anyway, just like they killed the DREAM Act in the Senate in December 2010.
Earlier in the debate, one of the undecided voters in the room asked Romney what distinguished him from George W. Bush.
In his answer, Romney failed to mention that Bush supported comprehensive immigration reform—indeed, that he advocated for it vigorously; that Bush never defended the concept of “self-deportation;” and that Bush understood the importance of the Latino vote to maintain the long-term viability of the Republicans as a national party, which, weeks from the election, Romney still hasn’t grasped.
Bush had no shortage of faults, but he understood, perfectly, the importance of immigration and the Latino vote. But last night, his party’s new figurehead—the Cynic-in-Chief—demonstrated once again why his abysmally low numbers among Hispanic voters aren’t climbing up to sea level anytime soon.