Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been unofficially running for president for the better part of five years, and in that time, he has been asked about immigration over and over again. Now some of his rivals are arguing that his answers to the question have been inconsistent. And the issue blew up last week at a CNN debate on national security.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said someone who has lived peacefully in the United States for many years with a family, a community and a job should have an opportunity to become a legal permanent resident.
Mitt Romney said that sounds like amnesty.
"Saying that we're all going to say to the people who've come here illegally that now you're all going to get to stay, or some large number are going to get to stay and become permanent residents of the United States, that will only encourage more people to do the same thing," Romney said.
The next day, Gingrich tweeted a link to an earlier Romney appearance, from NBC's Meet the Press in 2007.
"Those people who've come here illegally and are in this country, the 12 million or so who are here illegally, should be able to sign up for permanent residency or citizenship," Romney said at the time.
The Romney campaign says that quote was taken out of context. They point to what Romney said next: "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."
So Romney gives a thumbs up on some form of legal status. And he gives a thumbs down on what he calls "a special pathway" or "a special guarantee."
Romney went on to say that he believes people in the U.S. illegally who want citizenship should have to leave the country first.
"There's a set period whereupon they should return home, and if they've been approved for citizenship or for permanent residency ... that'd be a different matter. But for a great majority, they'll be going home," Romney said in the 2007 Meet the Press interview.
But this week, Bloomberg News released an even older quote from Romney that seems to conflict with that statement. In 2006, Romney told Bloomberg reporters and editors that undocumented workers "are not going to be rounded up and box-carred out."
"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," he said at the time, according to Bloomberg.
This plays into a larger criticism of Romney as flip-flopper that Democrats and Republicans alike have capitalized on.
What Does He Mean?
Romney policy director Lanhee Chen argues that there is nothing inconsistent in Romney's statements on immigration.
In a statement to NPR, Chen said, "Gov. Romney believes that illegal immigrants who apply for legal status should not be given any advantage over those who are following the law and waiting their turn."
But even some Republican experts in this field say Romney has not been clear.
"It's still very confusing as to what he's proposing and what some of the solutions are that some of the other Republican candidates would be offering," says Hector Barajas, a Republican political consultant in California who specializes in Latino issues.
Barajas says the murkiness around immigration should not surprise anyone. Republican candidates are trying to appeal to many different constituencies — anti-immigration hard-liners, Latino swing voters, small business owners who depend on foreign labor and more — all without alienating anyone.
A candidate who goes too far in one direction risks alienating Tea Party voters. But go too far in the other direction, and they risk alienating the fastest-growing minority group in the country.
"It's kind of like having that Thanksgiving dinner where you invite everyone in the family and try to figure out and make sure Uncle Joe's happy along with Aunt Suzy," says Barajas. "You're trying as much as possible, and a lot of these presidential candidates are trying as much as possible to appease every section of the base,"
On Tuesday, Romney will be campaigning in the early voting state of Florida, where immigration is a huge issue. And with Florida's large Latino population, his answers to these questions could ultimately determine whether he wins the state or takes runner-up, as he did to John McCain four years ago.