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Commentary: Romney's immigration stance? What Would Rubio Do

Mitt Romney has a more nuanced immigration stance these days.

Call it WWRD, an abbreviation for What Would Rubio Do?

That was the case this weekend after President Obama made an election-year executive order that allows hundreds of thousands of young immigrants brought into the country illegally as children to remain and work in the United States for two years without the threat of deportation.

Romney’s initial reaction?


Then came Florida’s Marco Rubio, the only Hispanic Republican in the U.S. Senate and a vice-presidential shortlister for Romney.

“Today’s announcement will be welcome news for many of these kids desperate for an answer, but it is a short term answer to a long term problem,” Rubio said shortly after Obama’s announcement.

Rubio also criticized Obama for “ignoring the Constitution and going around Congress” because the executive order essentially amounts to lawmaking by the executive branch of government.

After that, Romney got the memo.

As liberals and some conservatives started howling about his deafening silence, Romney stepped off his tour bus in New Hampshire and fretted about how Obama’s plan wasn’t a “long-term” solution.

“I’d like to see legislation that deals with this issue,” he said. “And I happen to agree with Marco Rubio, as he will consider this issue. He said this is an important matter. We have to find a long-term solution. But the president’s action makes reaching a long-term solution more difficult.”

That’s true to a degree. But what’s even more true is that the party of Rubio and Romney stands much more in the way of immigration legislation these days.

In 2006 Republicans revolted against the comprehensive immigration plan pushed by then-President Bush, Sen. John McCain and Rubio’s Florida predecessor, Sen. Mel Martinez. Republicans have repeatedly blocked and opposed the follow-up immigration proposal, called the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for young college- and military-bound immigrants who were brought or remain here illegally.

Romney, Rubio and many other Republicans say that bill is too broadly written and allows for too much amnesty. The president’s latest proposal doesn’t provide a citizenship pathway and isn’t permanent.

But if Romney really wants to “see legislation that deals with this issue,” he should ask Rubio, who said he was working on a DREAM Act alternative three months ago. It has yet to appear as a bill.

Behind the scenes in the Senate, corralling Republican votes is tough. Democrats, too, had heartburn about Rubio’s DREAM Act alternative — whatever it is — because it could have stolen Obama’s thunder over the issue.

Obama went first. He had to. The merits of the policy aside, Obama’s political motivations are clear: He needs to drum up Hispanic support.

Romney, winning the non-Hispanic white vote in many polls, doesn’t need to win the Latino vote outright. He just needs to win enough Hispanic votes to keep him competitive in states like Florida, Nevada and Colorado.

Florida stands out from the other Hispanic-heavy swing states because of the relatively large numbers of Cuban and Puerto Rican voters. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and Cubans have a special immigration status that makes the DREAM Act and the threat of deportation far less relevant when compared to, say, Mexicans, who comprise the bulk of the Latino population out West.

Florida’s heavy Cuban-Republican flavor made it tougher for Obama to win the state in 2008. Exit polls show he still carried the Hispanic vote by a sizable 15-percentage-point margin – but that’s less than half of the margin by which he beat McCain nationwide among Hispanics. President Bush won Florida in 2004 and carried the Hispanic vote by 12 points.

The Hispanic vote is growing in Florida — and disproportionately growing independent of the two main political parties, making it appear more up for grabs. Polls show Hispanic voters are like everyone else: overwhelmingly concerned about the economy, which is what Romney wants to talk most about these days.

But Hispanic voters are also more likely than non-Hispanic whites to favor the DREAM Act and oppose tough legislation like Arizona’s immigration crackdown. Romney favors the latter and opposes the former. He said during the primary that he would veto the DREAM Act and supported laws that would make life so uncomfortable for illegal residents that they’d “self deport.”

About that time, both Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush generically expressed concerns about the tone — not necessarily the substance — of the immigration debate among some in their party.

“I can’t stand to hear immigrants described in terms more appropriate to a plague of locusts than human beings,” Rubio writes in his new autobiography, An American Son, in which he faults liberals and conservatives over immigration. “I begin to wonder if some of the people who speak so disparagingly about immigrants would be just as worked up if most of them were coming from Canada.”

Romney hasn’t gone that far. But he has allied himself with immigration hardliners vilified by the left.

Since the primary, though, it appears Romney has opted to tone down the immigration talk to the point of silence.

On Sunday, in an interview with Bob Schieffer on CBS’s Face the Nation, Romney was asked about Obama’s new policy, which the Republican had noted a few days before “can be reversed by subsequent presidents.”

Would Romney reverse it, just like he would veto the DREAM Act?

Romney wouldn’t say.

Five times.

Paging Marco Rubio. Romney appears to be asking the question again: WWRD?