Young undocumented immigrants who receive work permits from a new Barack Obama administration initiative could remain in the country under a Mitt Romney administration, the Republican nominee said on Tuesday.
The new initiative, formally known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, allows undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country before they were 16 and avoided criminal records to apply for immunity from deportation and a temporary work permit.
While Republicans condemned the measure as an end-run around Congress that upends immigration law by offering undocumented immigrants amnesty, Romney was more cautious in his response. He repeatedly deflected questions about how he would approach the matter if elected, opting instead to assail Obama for enacting a temporary fix in lieu of comprehensive immigration reform.
But Romney clarified his position in an interview with the Denver Post, saying he would not interfere with immigrants who had applied for and received work permits.
"The people who have received the special visa that the president has put in place, which is a two-year visa, should expect that the visa would continue to be valid. I'm not going to take something that they've purchased," Romney said. "Before those visas have expired, we will have the full immigration reform plan that I've proposed."
After adopting a hardline immigration stance during the Republican primaries, when he advocated "self-deportation" and praised Arizona's controversial new immigration law, Romney has softened his rhetoric somewhat. His proposals for reform have focused mostly on facilitating legal immigration, something he emphasized again to the Denver Post.
"I actually will propose a piece of legislation, which will reform our immigration system to improve legal immigration so people don't have to hire lawyers to figure out how to get here legally," Romney said.
Polls show Romney trailing Obama among Latino voters by a yawning margin, a gap that could be pivotal in swing states, like Colorado, with booming Hispanic populations. Romney has sought to erode the president's advantage by capitalizing on disillusionment with the fact that Obama failed to deliver on his campaign vow to pursue comprehensive immigration reform.
"The president promised in his first year, his highest priority, that he would reform immigration, and he didn't, and I will," Romney told the Denver Post.
Romney's promise would likely prove difficult to fulfill given the divisiveness of the issue. Despite deporting unprecedented numbers of undocumented immigrants, President Obama has been unable to secure enough bipartisan support for immigration legislation.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is in many ways a substitute for the Dream Act, a bill that would have provided a path to citizenship to a similar population of young immigrants (unlike in the Dream Act, the deferred action program does not confer any sort of permanent legal status).