While mass deportation of everyone illegally residing in the United States is unacceptable for both practical and humanitarian reasons, Republicans are afraid to suggest an alternative, lest it be tagged with the a- word. Last week, Romney's campaign highlighted that danger by pouncing on Newt Gingrich for taking essentially the same position that Romney himself has repeatedly enunciated.
During last week's Republican presidential debate, Gingrich suggested appointing local review boards to decide which illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay. "If you've been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you've been paying taxes and obeying the law, (and) you belong to a local church, I don't think we're going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out," he said. "I'm prepared to take the heat for saying, 'Let's be humane.'"
Unlike many other self-aggrandizing pronouncements by the former House speaker, that one, sadly, had an element of truth, as Romney's campaign promptly proved. "Newt Gingrich made it very clear he was for amnesty," Romney's spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, told reporters after the debate.
Yet back in 2006, when he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney said, "Those that are here paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process toward application for citizenship, as they would from their home country." During his campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, he criticized the 2007 immigration reform bill, co-sponsored by his rival, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., saying, "People should have no advantage by having come here illegally." But he continued to support the general idea of letting illegal immigrants apply for citizenship or legal residency -- a policy that the Romney of 2011 presumably would condemn as "amnesty."
We can't say for sure, because he refuses to address the issue. After the debate, The Examiner's Philip Klein repeatedly pressed Fehrnstrom to say how Romney would handle the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants currently living in the United States. Fehrnstrom would go no further than declaring that Romney "would not grant them amnesty," uttering that phrase or variations on it no fewer than five times.
This dodge precludes the possibility of reconciling U.S. policy with the reality that, as Gingrich put it in 2006, "millions of illegal immigrants are here because Americans are hiring them. They have jobs in your neighborhood, and you know it."
Romney knows it as well as anyone else. In 2006, he was embarrassed by the revelation that undocumented landscapers hired by a contractor were working at his home in Belmont, Mass. As Gingrich pointed out (regarding illegal immigrants in general), "Keeping these hardworking people illegal makes them vulnerable to criminals and keeps them from playing responsible roles in our communities."
Romney's chief complaint about the 2007 immigration bill, which aimed to bring these people in from the shadows, was that it would have let illegal immigrants "jump ahead of the line" to become permanent residents (after eight years) or citizens (after 13). He made a similar point at a debate last September. "We've got 4.7 million people waiting in line legally," he said. "Let those people come in first."
But if the U.S. government were prepared to let eager workers connect with desperate employers, 4.7 million people would not be "waiting in line." And if that line moved at a reasonable pace, 12 million people would not be living here illegally.
At last week's debate, there was general agreement that it should be easier for high-skilled foreign nationals to take jobs in the United States. The same thing is glaringly true for people who work on farms, in restaurants and in politicians' yards. Just don't call it amnesty.