BOSTON | Mitt Romney adopted a mixed bag of immigration policies during his four years as Massachusetts governor.
He fought against in-state college tuition rates for illegal immigrants, pushed hard to give state troopers expanded powers to arrest those in the country illegally, and championed English-only classes for bilingual education students.
Yet Romney also showed a more compassionate side, personally interceding on behalf of an immigrant teacher facing deportation whose case drew heavy news coverage across the state. In 2004, Romney signed into law a requirement that immigration judges warn non-citizen defendants that pleading guilty to certain crimes could ultimately lead to their deportation.
Romney has recommended more funding for English as a Second Language programs because he wanted to help newcomers to this country become better equipped to compete for jobs by learning English, his campaign noted.
Romney’s varied record on immigration after being elected governor in 2002 could help shed light on how he’d tackle the issue if he becomes president.
“Mitt Romney’s view is that immigration is what built this country and that we should encourage legal immigration, but that we are also a nation of laws and that we should say no to illegal immigration,” Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said in an e-mailed statement. “This very simple view is what informed Mitt Romney’s policies as governor.”
Candidate Romney has presented differing profiles during the 2012 campaign.
He struck a hard line during the GOP primary season as he courted conservative voters, but softened his rhetoric on immigration after emerging as the likely Republican nominee, seeking to gain ground with Latino voters critical to his chances in the fall against President Barack Obama.
Romney’s campaign is working to woo Hispanics who have supported Democrats in previous presidential elections. Their support is expected to be critical in battleground states such as Nevada, Florida, Virginia and Colorado, where significant populations with Mexican and Central American origins are especially worried about immigration policy.
Heading into the leadoff Iowa caucuses in January and facing the challenge of winning over the right-wing GOP base, Romney vowed to veto the so-called DREAM Act, a bill backed by Democrats that would create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
Romney’s tough talk bothered many immigrants. Instead of emphasizing the plight of illegal immigrants, he focused on the consequences illegal immigration has for U.S. jobs.
He hasn’t said whether he would reverse Obama’s decision this year to stop deporting some illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. Romney has said Obama’s executive order to allow some of them to obtain work permits and stay in the U.S. was problematic because it can be reversed by subsequent presidents.
Complaining that the nation’s immigration laws have become a “muddle,” Romney has called for a national strategy and pledged he would tackle immigration during his first year in office.
He’s stressed his support for giving legal status to illegal immigrants who serve in the military. He favors a U.S.-Mexico border fence. But he’s also vowed to “staple a green card” to the diplomas of immigrants who receive advanced degrees.
Romney supports establishing an immigration-status verification system for employers and he would punish them if they hire non-citizens who do not prove their legal status. He backs more visas for holders of advanced degrees in math, science and engineering who have U.S. job offers, and he would award permanent residency to foreign students who graduate from U.S. schools with a degree in those fields.
As governor, Romney generally opposed initiatives favored by immigration advocates, although they occasionally found common ground.
One of Romney’s more contentious decisions came late in his term in 2006 when he signed an agreement with federal authorities allowing Massachusetts State Police troopers to arrest and seek deportation of suspected illegal aliens they encounter during their normal duties.
Immigration activists opposed the initiative, saying it would drive a wedge between immigrants and police, discouraging them from reporting crimes or seeking critical services.
Shortly after taking office Romney’s Democratic successor, Gov. Deval Patrick, rescinded the agreement, saying he wanted to free troopers to focus on gun, gang and drug crimes.
Romney also pushed for changes to the state’s decades-long bilingual education system.
Massachusetts was the first state to adopt bilingual education, but during his 2002 campaign Romney embraced an “English immersion” ballot question aimed at replacing two-way bilingual education with one-year, all-English classes intended to move non-English speakers into regular classes as quickly as possible.
Some Hispanic and immigration advocates opposed the measure, which won wide public support, but Romney fought against efforts to delay implementation of the English-only classes.
He ultimately lost one battle when lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled Legislature created some exemptions to the law and later overrode Romney’s veto of those exemptions.
Romney accused lawmakers of “unfathomable arrogance” and flouting the will of voters.
Immigration advocates found a rare moment of agreement with Romney in 2004 when he signed into law the requirement that immigration judges warn non-citizen defendants that pleading guilty to certain crimes could ultimately lead to their deportation, even if they were currently in the country legally.
“That was one positive thing that happened during his term,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
She said that victory was overshadowed by other stances, like Romney’s opposition to allowing illegal immigrants brought to the country as children to pay the same tuition rates at state colleges as legal Massachusetts residents.
“Overall he has been consistent in his misconception about immigration. We never found him to have a big vision about reform on immigration issues,” she said. “He lacks understanding and focuses more on politics than policy.”
Romney showed a more personal approach on immigration in 2005 after students rallied behind a beloved schoolteacher facing deportation.
Obain Attouoman, then a 42-year-old teacher at Boston’s Fenway High School, fled political persecution in the Ivory Coast in 1992 and later applied for asylum in the United States. But he missed a hearing with an immigration judge in 2001 and was ordered deported.
Romney joined a chorus of public officials — including Massachusetts Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry — in urging a reprise for Attouoman, who won a delay but was ultimately deported in 2008.
In a letter to then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in 2005, Romney pleaded Attouoman’s case, calling him “a teacher and role model.”
“The unique and impassioned effort by these students to convey to our government the important contribution of Mr. Attouoman certainly demonstrates the impact he is having as a member of our education community,” Romney wrote.
Miga reported from Washington.