Mitt Romney on amnesty, circa 2006 Update: Out of context?

Plenty of people are jumping on Newt Gingrich for his immigration comments, including Mitt Romney. It’s good to know that Mitt has been a long time, staunch advocate of strong positions on illegal immigration. What’s that you say? Mitt might have taken a different position previously? Perish the thought!

(See UPDATE below)

Let’s go to the video.

Business Week has the scoop.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who charged Republican presidential primary rival Newt Gingrich with proposing “amnesty” for certain illegal immigrants, took a nearly identical position in a 2006 Bloomberg interview, saying some foreigners who entered the U.S. illegally should be allowed to remain and gain legal status.

Romney, who at the time hadn’t yet declared his first presidential candidacy for 2008, told reporters and editors in Bloomberg News’s Washington bureau that the 11 million immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally “are not going to be rounded up and box-carred out.” Law-abiding people who pay taxes, learn English and don’t rely on government benefits should be allowed to “get in line” to apply for citizenship, he said.

“We need to begin a process of registering those people, some being returned, and some beginning the process of applying for citizenship and establishing legal status,” Romney said during the March 29, 2006, session.

The comments contrast with the position Romney took last week when he challenged Gingrich’s assertion during a televised debate that the U.S. should have a “humane” immigration policy that allows some people who entered the country illegally long ago, have no criminal record, and have family, civic and religious ties to stay and get legal status. Romney called the approach “amnesty” and a magnet for illegality.

This is yet another subject where I’m having a hard time deciding whether I like Governor Mitt Romney better, or presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Though it’s anathema to most hard line conservatives, there are serious problems with trying to suddenly locate, detain and deport tens of millions of people. That’s why I’ve always personally advocated a program of going after those who hire those without proper credentials proving they are here legally and eligible to work. (Call it a “magnet” if you like.) But even that path is fraught with some risks, as the tomato farmers in Alabama will testify.

The point here goes less to the practical than to the political. Romney does best when he gives generic answers to debate questions and largely stays quiet the rest of the time, allowing the rest of the field to attack and implode each other. When he jumps in to criticize a position taken by Newt, or Perry or Cain, it usually doesn’t take reporters more than a few minutes to find some point in the past when Romney took the exact same stance. (Or at least something close to it.)

Expect the other campaigns – particularly Team Gingrich – to be making hay out of this one in the weeks to come.

UPDATE: Readers inform us that the quote above was correct, but perhaps out of context. The full text of the comment in the video is provided.

My own view is, consistent with what you saw in the Lowell Sun, that those people who had come here illegally and are in this country, the 12 million or so that are here illegally, should be able to sign up for permanent residency or citizenship, but they should not be given a special pathway, a special guarantee that all of them get to stay here for the rest of their lives merely by virtue of having come here illegally, and that, I think, is the great flaw in the final bill that came forward from the Senate.

This does add more context to it, and definitely softens the impact of the clipped video. Then again, even in context, it seems to imply that at least some of the illegals would have some form of preferential treatment, if not “head of the line” privileges. In fact, it’s rather hard to square the original portion of the statement with the emphasized additional quote which was not originally included. If Mitt is just saying that anyone here illegally should be able to go home and then “sign up for permanent residency” then he’s not saying much more than, “Let’s deport them and let them apply for citizenship through the normal channels.” But the preface of saying, “had come here illegally and are in this country” muddles the statement completely. It would be nice to find some additional statements on this issue from the same period.

UPDATE 2: And more backing up the original version. Or at least sort of.

In 2007, Romney had also talked of undocumented immigrants returning to their country of origin, but back then he didn’t appear to favor that approach for all. In the end, his comments in a key Dec. 16, 2007, interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” were jumbled and unclear.

“They should have a set period during which period they sign up for application for permanent residency or for citizenship. But there’s a set period whereupon they should return home. And if they’ve been approved for citizenship or for a permanent residency, well, that would be a different matter. But for the great majority, they’ll be going home,” Romney told Tim Russert in that interview.

The Romney campaign did not answer questions about whether those comments constituted the view that some, but not all, undocumented immigrants should have to leave the country. The phrase “great majority” implies it is what he meant.

So in the past, Romney indicated an openness to creating a process by which undocumented immigrants might achieve permanent status in the U.S. But his position has hardened: He now believes the government should do nothing directly for those who are in the country without documentation and want to stay, regardless of whether they are productive members of society or are receiving government benefits or are involved in criminal enterprises.

He wants to direct immigrants’ behavior through “incentives.”

I leave it to the reader to decide for themselves. These answers are, as the last update indicates, “muddled” at best, but it’s not as clear cut as the original piece might suggest.