It's a problem of his own making. He decided that beating up on illegal immigrants would boost his popularity among those suspicious that he was really a moderate Republican. In doing so, he injected an issue into the campaign that had largely fizzled -- and for good reason. Illegal immigration is down to historical lows -- primarily because the U.S. economy continues to be sluggish, so fewer people want to come here.
Romney has plenty of advisers trying to figure out how best to soften his negative image among Hispanic voters. We can expect to see him wolfing down tacos and mumbling a few phrases in Spanish in the days ahead. But neither tactic will do anything but make him look foolish.
What he should do is rid his campaign of the likes of Kris Kobach -- the zealot behind several state anti-illegal immigrant laws being challenged in the courts right now. The Romney campaign already has started to back away from its association with Kobach, but that's just the first step. The next thing he needs to do is to speak honestly and openly to the American people about the true state of immigration to the U.S. -- legal and illegal.
Here's my suggestion for what he should say:
"My fellow Americans, I know I've spent a lot of time talking about illegal immigration during the primaries, and I've used some pretty tough rhetoric. I've suggested that 11 million people who are here illegally -- many of whom have lived in this country for decades -- should self-deport.
"But when I think about what those words really mean, I've come to understand that it would require parents to leave behind their American-born children or else force them to go to a country they've never known and whose language they may not even speak. It would separate husband from wife, brother from sister, and lead to family breakdown and instability in many communities.
"It also would shutter many local businesses, not just those that depend on immigrant labor but those where illegal immigrants buy their food, clothes, cars and washing machines. It would deepen the housing crisis as they left behind mortgages that never would be paid and abandoned rental units that would not be filled. Church pews would be emptier, as would federal, state and local tax coffers.
"It's true that there would be fewer tax dollars expended on educating the children of illegal immigrants or treating them in local emergency rooms. But every careful study that has factored in what illegal immigrants and their adult children ultimately pay in taxes over their life spans and what they take out in services shows a net positive, although a small one.
"So we need to figure out a humane and practical way to deal with this problem -- not one that makes a good sound bite but has no chance of success. I am committed, if I become president, to get the best minds available to come up with some alternatives. I know that most Americans don't like the idea of rewarding law-breakers, so whatever solution we come up with will have to carry heavy penalties for those who've broken the law.
"But we also have to realize that the only way to prevent this problem from recurring when the economy starts booming again -- as it will on my watch -- is to fix our legal immigration laws. Our legal immigration system is broken. The reason so many people have sneaked into the country illegally or remained here after their temporary visas expired is that there are no legal avenues for them to come.
"We need a legal immigration system that is market-based, not one created by a bunch of bureaucrats and anti-population lobbyists. We need to make sure American workers get first crack at jobs -- but when they won't take certain jobs or can't meet the qualifications for others, employers need legal access to workers who can and will. And we need whatever system we create to be flexible enough to accommodate the business cycle, with visas going up during boom times and down during recessions.
"What I promise, my fellow Americans, is to stop pandering to ideologues and hatemongers and come up with a system that is good for America and Americans and reflects the principles and values that have made this country great."
If he had the courage to give such a speech, he'd do more than improve his standing with Hispanics. He'd show leadership befitting a president.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
Be the first to read Linda Chavez's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com delivered each morning to your inbox.