During the Republican primaries, the exit polls showed little interest in illegal immigration. In the key swing state of Ohio, only 5 percent of GOP voters considered it the most important issue. In Florida, it was just 3 percent. The exact same percentage held in such conservative bastions as South Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama. The border state of Arizona was a rare exception, where at 14 percent illegal immigration was a higher priority for primary voters than abortion.
The economy, jobs, and the deficit all trumped immigration. Moreover, the economic downturn, coupled with tough new laws in several states, had reduced the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States. A recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center suggests that net migration from Mexico has fallen to zero -- and perhaps less.
Yet in a fairly transparent attempt to jumpstart Hispanic voter turnout in the November election, President Barack Obama has brought illegal immigration back to the forefront. Citing prosecutorial discretion, Obama's Department of Homeland Security announced that illegal immigrants under age 30 who met certain conditions would not be eligible for deportation.
Far from setting enforcement priorities, however, this was simply an administrative decision to implement the DREAM Act -- which Congress rather pointedly failed to pass. Instead of the DREAM Act, Obama had issued the DREAM edict.
Obama had thrown down the gauntlet. Now it was up to Mitt Romney to determine how to respond. Romney took a hard line against illegal immigration in the primaries, opposing comprehensive amnesties and smaller ones like the DREAM Act. Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who helped write Arizona's infamous SB 1070, was a (then formal) adviser. Romney talked about illegal immigrants self-deporting and seemed to embrace the attrition through enforcement strategy behind laws like SB 1070.
In border-conscious Arizona, Romney won a large plurality of Republicans who cared most about illegal immigration. According to exit polls, he won 44 percent of their vote to Newt Gingrich's 26 percent and Rick Santorum's 16 percent. At the same time, Romney carried the state's Latino primary voters with 38 percent of the vote to Santorum's 24 percent and Gingrich's 19 percent.
The same held true in Florida, where Gingrich tried to use illegal immigration as a wedge issue against Romney. But Romney ended up beating Gingrich 54 percent to 29 percent among Florida Hispanics. Romney beat Gingrich 57 percent to 31 percent among Cuban-Americans and 52 percent to 23 percent among non-Cuban Hispanics.
But the Romney camp is clearly worried that what worked among Hispanic Republicans could fail among the broader Latino electorate. Kobach has been downgraded to informal adviser. Romney now pairs his talk of curtailing illegal immigration with plans for increasing legal immigration. And the candidate's tone on the issue has lightened somewhat since he clinched the Republican presidential nomination.
Consider Romney's approach to Obama's immigration gambit, which could do as much to turn out the conservative base as Hispanics. The former Massachusetts governor has been very coy about the substance of the policy. Romney has preferred to focus on Obama ignoring Congress -- and, more tellingly, short-circuiting a long-term legislative solution.
In a speech to a group of Latino elected and appointed officials last week, Romney pledged to "replace and supersede" Obama's approach with a bipartisan answer of his own. He embraced Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican senator who was going to offer his own version of the DREAM Act. And he repeatedly faulted Obama for failing to keep his promises to Hispanics by seriously pushing for legislation when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.
Romney's last point is irrefutably true. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid floated an immigration bill in the spring of 2010, suspiciously timed to embarrass John McCain as he was locked in a competitive primary fight. Obama advocated the enactment of the DREAM Act during the lame-duck session of Congress at the end of that year, after the midterm elections. Neither constituted a serious push.
But this doesn't sound like the criticism of someone who rejects "comprehensive immigration reform" out of hand. Romney proposes no broad-based amnesty, so far suggesting only that some young illegal immigrants could be legalized through military service. He supports e-verify and the border fence, and is still generally to the right of McCain and George W. Bush on illegal immigration.
Nevertheless, Romney could end up being a net immigration booster. His call for more skilled legal immigration plus facilitated family reunification could, depending on the specifics, outweigh the reduction in illegal immigration. The talk of long-term legislative solutions has to trouble restrictionists who remember prominent Republicans, including a sitting president of the United States, backing amnesty in 2006-07.
Obama could have unwittingly revived the immigration issue in the fall campaign, perhaps to his detriment. There is a reason the pro-amnesty elite has been rebuffed no matter which party controls Congress. Whether this causes Romney's own position on immigration to evolve, however, is something that bears watching.