WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney's evolution into a full-fledged immigration hawk is complete.
The Republican presidential candidate's comments this week on the issue of undocumented immigrants made clear where he stands now: The U.S. government should do nothing proactive beyond creating a hostile environment for those in the country illegally, in the hopes that they leave.
Anyone in the United States in violation of federal law should go back to his or her country of origin, Romney said Wednesday during a tele-town hall with Iowa voters.
The former Massachusetts governor noted that he favors a "path to citizenship" for undocumented immigrants, but added that "consists of going to their home country, applying for citizenship or permanent residency just like everybody else, and getting back in the line."
"They should have to get in the same line with everybody else who wants to come here legally," Romney said.
In 2007, Romney had also talked of undocumented immigrants returning to their country of origin, but back then he didn't appear to favor that approach for all. In the end, his comments in a key Dec. 16, 2007, interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" were jumbled and unclear.
"They should have a set period during which period they sign up for application for permanent residency or for citizenship. But there's a set period whereupon they should return home. And if they've been approved for citizenship or for a permanent residency, well, that would be a different matter. But for the great majority, they'll be going home," Romney told Tim Russert in that interview.
The Romney campaign did not answer questions about whether those comments constituted the view that some, but not all, undocumented immigrants should have to leave the country. The phrase "great majority" implies it is what he meant.
So in the past, Romney indicated an openness to creating a process by which undocumented immigrants might achieve permanent status in the U.S. But his position has hardened: He now believes the government should do nothing directly for those who are in the country without documentation and want to stay, regardless of whether they are productive members of society or are receiving government benefits or are involved in criminal enterprises.
He wants to direct immigrants' behavior through "incentives."
"People respond to incentives," Romney said during the Republican presidential debate Tuesday night. "And if you can become a permanent resident of the United States by coming here illegally, you'll do so."
An incentive approach mainly means making it so difficult for undocumented immigrants to be in the U.S. that they leave on their own, as Romney's top spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, explained to Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner after the debate Tuesday.
"No in-state tuition, no benefits of any kind, no employment. You put in place an employment verification system with penalties for employers that hire illegals, that will shut off access to the job market, and they will self-retreat. They will go to their countries," Fehrnstrom said.
Romney reiterated this position in the tele-town hall Wednesday: "So for me, the answer is pretty straightforward: fence, enough troops, an identification system that identifies who's here legally, and then tough sanctions for employers that hire people who are here illegally."
This answer would not actually address all undocumented immigrants. A good number would remain. But Romney has apparently decided that it is too dangerous to cross the conservative base of the Republican Party, which is vehemently against any form of normalization for undocumented immigrants.
Romney's shift on the issue first saw the light of day in the 2008 campaign, when he ran to the right of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- the party's eventual nominee -- on the immigration issue. Then, as with his attacks on Newt Gingrich now, Romney denounced McCain as favoring "amnesty."
During a Wednesday appearance in Iowa, Romney attacked Gingrich for his comments at the previous night's debate.
Gingrich's plan is to open a "path to legality" for some undocumented immigrants. "We need a path to legality, but not citizenship, for some of these individuals who have deep ties to America, including family, church and community ties," states his 10-point immigration plan.
As the former speaker of the House put it Tuesday night, "You get to be legal, but you don't get a pass to citizenship."
Gingrich added, "And so there's a way to ultimately end up with a country where there's no more illegality, but you haven't automatically given amnesty to anyone."
His plan would require securing the border, establishing a guest worker program, deporting those who are in the U.S. illegally and have committed crimes, and then creating what he likened Tuesday night to a "World War II Selective Service board" to review the cases of the undocumented.
A Gingrich spokesman explained Wednesday that "local citizen review boards" would review local cases of undocumented immigrants who want to stay in the country. "They could be judged by a jury of their neighbors," R.C. Hammond told the Des Moines Register.
But in Iowa on Wednesday, Romney said Gingrich had "offered a new doorway to amnesty."
"I know there's going to be great interest in finding how far we can apply amnesty, and I just think we make a mistake as a Republican Party to try to describe which people who come here illegally should be given amnesty, to be able to jump ahead of the line of people who have been waiting in line," Romney said in Des Moines. "My view is people who have waited in line patiently to come to this country legally should be ahead in line. And those who come here illegally should not be given a special deal or a special accelerated right to become a permanent resident or citizen."
Gingrich's 10-point plan says exactly the same thing. One of his three principles for immigration reform is this: "Under no circumstance can a path to citizenship be created which would allow those who have broken the law to receive precedence over those who patiently waited to become residents and citizens via the legal process. Those who adhered to our immigration law cannot be usurped by those who violated it."
Gingrich shot back at Romney on Twitter Wednesday, linking to a snippet of the 2007 "Meet the Press" interview in which Romney said, "Those people who had come here illegally and are in this country, the 12 million or so that are here illegally, should be able to sign up for permanent residency or citizenship."
Even the tone of Romney's rhetoric on immigration is far different from what it was just a few years ago. In a 2005 interview with the Boston Globe, he said of undocumented immigrants, "These people contribute in many cases to our economy and to our society. In some cases, they do not. But that's a whole group we're going to have to determine how to deal with."
In that interview, Romney said he had not formulated a position on various immigration reform plans being debated, but proposals by then-President George W. Bush and Sen. McCain were "reasonable." Specifically, he said that McCain's plan was "quite different" from "amnesty."
"It's saying you could work your way into becoming a legal resident of the country by working here without taking benefits and then applying and then paying a fine," Romney noted.
In the 2007 "Meet the Press" interview, Russert read a quote from a Romney interview with the Lowell Sun. "I don't believe in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from our country," Romney had told the Sun. "With these 11 million people, let's have them registered, know who they are. Those who've been arrested or convicted of crimes shouldn't be here. Those that are paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process towards application for citizenship, as they would from their home country."
On "Meet the Press," Romney stood by that position, telling Russert that "those people who had come here illegally and are in this country -- the 12 million or so that are here illegally -- should be able to stay, sign up for permanent residency or citizenship, 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."
He then added the nebulous line about having "a great majority" of undocumented immigrants leave the country.
Amanda Terkel contributed to this report.