Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney… (Charles Dharapak / AP Photo )
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Mitt Romney touched down briefly onto ground zero of the national immigration debate Monday, telling a crowd of Republican donors in Arizona that he was disappointed with the Supreme Court decision on their state's immigration law but that President Obama deserved blame for creating a legal muddle.
"I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to the states, not less," Romney told supporters at a private fundraiser in Scottsdale, hours after the justices had ruled against several provisions of the controversial law while upholding the key "show your papers" provision.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee lamented that under the ruling, states "have less authority, less latitude to enforce immigration laws."
He added: "It’s become a muddle. But it didn’t have to be this way. The president promised in his campaign that in his first year he would take on immigration and solve our immigration challenges, put in place a long-term program to care for those who want to come here legally, to deal with illegal immigration, to deal with securing our borders.
"All these things he was going to in his first year. He had a Democrat House and a Democrat Senate but he didn’t do it. Isn’t it time for the American people to ask him: Why? …
“I will lead on this issue, among others. In my first year I will make sure we actually do take on immigration, we secure our border, we make sure that we grow legal immigration in a way that provides people here with skill and expertise that we want. This is an issue that has to be tackled, I will tackle it, not with stopgap measures but with the kind of work that’s done across the aisle by people of good faith."
It was coincidence that Romney arrived in Arizona within hours of the Supreme Court ruling, and he avoided any questions on the issue, which poses political risk to his campaign. Romney staked out a strong stand against illegal immigration in the Republican primary, and polls show he is badly trailing President Obama among Latino voters, an increasingly important constituency.
Romney has been a strong supporter of the Arizona law, which instructs police to inquire about someone's immigration status if the person been legitimately stopped and police suspect he or she might be an illegal immigrant. In one primary campaign debate, he called it “a model” law. Critics have said it will lead to racial profiling.
Romney also said during the primary campaign that he wanted to make it so difficult for illegal immigrants to find work that they would "self-deport" – an idea that he stopped mentioning as the campaign swung into its general election phase.
Local reporters and camera crews were barred from the resort where Romney was speaking Monday, and he avoided contact with the traveling press that is following his campaign. Romney had started the day in Salt Lake City, touched down for a few hours in Arizona, then headed to Virginia, where he planned to campaign Tuesday.
Still, he didn’t squander the opportunity to criticize Obama on immigration. Even before he arrived in Arizona, his campaign issued a statement saying the high court's ruling "underscores the need for a president who will lead on this critical issue and work in a bipartisan fashion to pursue a national immigration strategy. President Obama has failed to provide any leadership on immigration."
While Romney spoke inside the Scottsdale resort, about two dozen demonstrators stood in a scorching sun on the sidewalk outside, holding signs and chanting rebukes. "Shame on you!" they shouted as Romney supporters arrived for the fundraiser.
"This is two-fold," said protest leader Carlos Galindo of the Immigrant Advocacy Foundation, wiping sweat off his brow in temperatures well above 100 degrees. "We wanted to come and send a message to Mitt Romney that we're not going to self-deport. We also wanted to say we're not going to allow Mitt Romney to get into the presidency to veto the Dream Act."
The last statement was a reference to legislation that would offer a path to citizenship for college students who were born abroad but raised in this country. President Obama recently announced an executive order that effectively offers amnesty -- but not citizenship -- to such students. Romney has said he supports citizenship for foreign-born members of the U.S. military and green cards for immigrants who complete advanced degrees, but has said he would veto the Dream Act if it crossed his desk as president.
Maria Gutierrez, a Mexican-born U.S. citizen who works as a nursing assistant in a Phoenix-area hospital, was among the protesters outside the Romney fundraiser. She held a sign that said: "I'm an immigrant. I'm your landscaper, your cook, your nanny, your neighbor."
She said she was there to call attention to the unfairness of the Arizona immigration law, and to tell Romney -- whose father was born in Mexico -- "to be honest with the Latinos, to say where he comes from."
"He has a beautiful heritage," she added. "Don't deny it."
Gutierrez, it turned out, wasn't the only member of her family at the event. While she parboiled under a baseball cap, she said, her sister was inside, luxuriating in the cool interior of the resort and supporting Romney at the $2,500-a-plate chicken-and-asparagus fundraising lunch.
"When it comes to politics," Gutierrez said, "we always clash."