Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney makes a statement on immigration… (Evan Vucci / Associated…)
Reporting from Milford, N.H., and Washington — Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney suggested Friday that he was open to helping young illegal immigrants but said the new policy announced Friday by the Obama administration to suspend their deportations complicates efforts to find a permanent solution.
“I believe the status of young people who come here through no fault of their own is an important matter to be considered and should be solved on a long-term basis so they know what their future would be in this country," Romney told reporters after a rally in New Hampshire. "I think the action that the president took today makes it more difficult to reach that long-term solution,” noting the new policy “could be reversed by subsequent presidents. I’d like to see legislation that deals with this issue.”
His comments represented a sharp change in rhetoric from the Republican primaries, when Romney repeatedly sought to outflank his rivals with a hard line on illegal immigration.
At the time, as Romney was battling to win over conservative voters in states such as South Carolina, he attacked former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for proposing a path to legal status for some illegal immigrants and criticized Texas Gov. Rick Perry for signing a law that granted in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.
He also stressed his opposition to the Dream Act, which would allow some children of illegal immigrants to obtain citizenship by fulfilling military service or pursuing high education.
"I think we have to follow the law, and insist that those that have come here illegally ultimately return home, apply, get in line with everyone else," Romney said at a debate in South Carolina in January.
As his primary rivals fell away and it became clear that Romney had clinched the Republican nomination, the former Massachusetts governor dialed back the harsh rhetoric on illegal immigration he had used during the primary. At every turn this spring, he has been deliberately vague about his plans to deal with illegal immigration, promising more details at a later date.
In late April while campaigning with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Romney stopped short of endorsing the concepts for the legislation that Rubio has been working. Romney said had spoken with Rubio about the idea that he had been working on -- to provide “non-immigrant” visas for those who had entered the country as young people with their families -- and was “taking a look at his proposal.”
“It has many features to commend it, but it’s something that we're studying,” Romney said during a press conference after a campaign event with Rubio.
Romney has also said he would favor allowing illegal immigrants who serve in the military the right to earn citizenship, but he has refused to discuss whether that privilege should be extended to any other group of undocumented people living in the U.S.
“You know I anticipate before the November election we’ll be laying out whole series of policies that relate to immigration,” Romney told reporters when pressed on that point after his event with Rubio in Chester Township. “
On Friday, Romney once again aligned himself Rubio, whose bill would likely legalize the status of some young people in this country illegally if they pursue higher education or the military, but probably fall short of providing them a path to citizenship as the Dream Act would.
Obama is a supporter of the Dream Act, but the legislation has repeatedly stalled in Congress.
Romney noted that Rubio responded to the Obama administration announcement Friday by calling the status of young illegal immigrants an important matter that needs a long-term solution.
“If I’m president, we’ll do our very best to have that kind of long-term solution that provides certainty and clarity for the people who come into this country through no fault of their own, by virtue of the action of their parents,” added Romney, who declined to take questions from reporters.
Romney’s language was decidedly more conciliatory than that of some of the conservatives who had challenged him for this year’s GOP nomination.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum issued a statement accusing Obama of “blatantly ignored our Constitution, the role of Congress in making laws, and the separation of powers.”
"President Obama's ideology, his inability to lead and build consensus, and his political self-interest guide his policies rather than the public interest,” Santorum said. “The contribution of immigrants to our country is central to our success, but so is the Constitution and the rule of law. We should honor both rather than undermining legal immigration and Constitutional principles such as separation of powers.”
And Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Obama “prefers to upend the rule of law, picking winners and losers, rather than work with Congress and the American people on a sustainable, long-term solution.”
Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.