Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney probably would have been happy to get through the second presidential debate without hearing the phrase "self-deport," a term that Romney used in his primary campaign to plant his flag as the most conservative GOP candidate on immigration.
But when a newly aggressive President Obama brought it up, Romney offered a spirited defense -- albeit one that probably didn’t help him win over many Latino voters.
The exchange took place after Romney had been asked by an audience member what he would do "with immigrants without their green cards that are currently living here as productive members of society."
His answer in Tuesday night's debate was that he would encourage legal immigration by streamlining the application process and encouraging highly educated workers to immigrate.
But, he said, "We're going to have to stop illegal immigration. There are 4 million people who are waiting in line to get here legally. Those who've come here illegally take their place. So I will not grant amnesty to those who have come here illegally."
Obama, given a chance to respond, pointed out, correctly, that Romney had called for "self-deportation" in the Republican primary. In the president’s description, Romney would accomplish this by "making life so miserable on folks that they'll leave." While touting his own immigration policies, including deporting "criminals, gangbangers, people who are hurting the community," Obama also criticized Arizona's tough immigration law and said that Romney had called it a model for the nation.
Romney denied having referred to the Arizona law as a model, saying he was referring to only one aspect of Arizona’s policy -- a requirement that employers check the immigration status of job applicants using the E-Verify system. And he said his call for "self-deportation" merely was a proposal to "let people make their own choice."
"What I was saying is, we're not going to round up 12 million people, undocumented illegals, and take them out of the nation. Instead let people make their own choice," he said. "And if they -- if they find that -- that they can't get the benefits here that they want and they can't -- and they can't find the job they want, then they'll make a decision to go a place where -- where they have better opportunities."
"But," he added, "I'm not in favor of rounding up people and -- and -- and taking them out of this country. I am in favor, as the president has said, and I agree with him, which is that if people have committed crimes we've got to get them out of this country."
Romney’s comments about the Arizona law appear to be accurate. In a Republican primary debate in Phoenix in February, he praised the E-Verify system without commenting on the more controversial aspects of the law, which compels police to check immigration status if they suspect that someone might not be a citizen.
"You know, I think you see a model in Arizona," Romney said at the time. "They passed a law here that says -- that says that people who come here and try and find work, that the employer is required to look them up on E-Verify. This E-Verify system allows employers in Arizona to know who's here legally and who's not here legally."
Romney went on to say, however, that as president, he would drop federal lawsuits that target the Arizona law much more broadly. The Justice Department has charged that Arizona has unconstitutionally taken on immigration authority that belong solely to the federal government.