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The Politics of Self-Deportation



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No one issue or blunder caused the 2012 Republican nominee to go down in defeat. But any reasonable accounting of Mitt Romney’s loss would put the issue of immigration – legal and illegal — front and center. Hispanic Americans voted for Barack Obama in overwhelming numbers. Where George W. Bush was able to get 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000 and 41 percent in 2004, Romney only got 27 percent, losing a key voting bloc by the lopsided margin of 44 points. What went wrong with the campaign, and what does it portend for the future?

As immigration reform wends its way through Congress, post-mortems of the campaign continue to appear. But some from the Romney campaign are putting out a sanitized version of events. That’s all well and good if their interests are to protect their own reputations. But if the Republican party is to understand what went happened and draw appropriate lessons, an honest accounting is required.

Lanhee Chen, the Romney campaign’s policy director, now a columnist for Bloomberg Viewwrites this week that, to deal with illegal immigration, Romney “proposed a thoughtful, thorough and largely bipartisan set of reforms.” It included such measures as fixing the temporary-worker visa program, tightening the security of our borders, and giving out green cards to foreign students who earned advanced degrees in critical subjects.

Those are all relatively uncontroversial positions. But Chen also notes, almost in passing, that “the one topic we didn’t directly address . . . was the question of how to deal with the immigrants who were already in the U.S. illegally.”

That’s quite an acknowledgement.

How could Romney’s immigration-reform proposals be “thorough,” as Chen states, if they didn’t directly include a way to deal with the approximately 11 million souls living in limbo within our borders? If Romney was silent about this central issue, it is important to inquire why he was silent. Yet Chen, the man in charge of formulating policy in this area, offers not a word of explanation.

Chen does acknowledge that the omission caused some problems – and these weren’t little minor hiccups. “Because we didn’t directly answer this question,” he writes, “we gave the campaign of President Barack Obama and its allies the opportunity to score political points.” This the Obama team did, he explains, by bouncing off of Romney’s comment in a January 2012 Republican-primary debate that illegal immigrants should “self-deport.” Chen calls Romney’s self-deportation comment a “perhaps less politically correct” way of saying that federal immigration laws should be enforced so as to encourage illegal immigrants to leave of their own free will.

That is one way of putting it. Another more candid way would be to acknowledge that the “self-deportation” comment offended Hispanic sensibilities. It was precisely the kind of talk that the Republican National Committee warns against in its own post-mortem on the race, explaining that on issues like immigration Republicans “needs to carefully craft a tone that takes into consideration the unique perspective of the Hispanic community.”

By all means, let’s have a discussion of what lessons can be learned from Mitt Romney’s approach to immigration. But let’s discuss it frankly.

Let’s talk about the countervailing pressures that push candidates to stake out extreme positions in the struggle for the Republican nomination and then leave them to hobble back to the center, politically damaged, in the general election. The Romney campaign did not navigate these treacherous waters well. If we are going to learn from its mistakes, we need to acknowledge them, not paper them over with euphemism, evasions, and elisions.

— Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the author of A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider’s Account (Penguin).



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