As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney worked with the state's Democratic leaders to temporarily stop the deportation of an African immigrant who was in the country illegally. Romney's 2005 intervention, which included writing a letter to the Department of Homeland Security and stating that exceptions to immigration rules should sometimes be made, appears directly at odds with his criticism of Newt Gingrich’s more lenient position on immigration reform.
Throughout the GOP primary campaign, Romney has criticized the former House Speaker's support for allowing some undocumented immigrants who have been in the country many years to stay. In a debate last fall, Romney declared that the Republican Party makes “a mistake” when it tries to “describe which people who have come here illegally should be given amnesty to be able to jump ahead in the line over people who have been waiting in line."
"Those who come here illegally should not be given a special deal or a special accelerated right to become a permanent resident or citizen,” Romney said.
In the case of Obain Attouoman, a popular math and special education teacher at Boston's Fenway High School, Romney appears to have made just that “mistake.”
Attouoman came to the United States on an exchange visa from his native Ivory Coast in 1992 and later applied for political asylum. He feared he would be in danger if he returned to his home country because of his involvement with a teachers union and an insurgent political party there. In 2001, he missed a hearing on his request because, he said, he had misread the handwritten date on the notice. Federal immigration officials started deportation proceedings and a judge ordered him out of the country.
Attouoman's students, many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants, rallied behind him, appealing to the state's congressional delegation, then led by Democratic senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, to file a private bill to make him a resident. The students also appealed to Romney, the Republican governor, delivering a letter of support to his office.
As Romney told CNN at the time, he appreciated the need to apply the same rules to everybody. "But now and then," he said, "when a group of kids come together and say this is different. Please all you people at the top of the pyramid of the public service world, will you stop and look at this? This is different. It doesn't fit the rule."
Romney wrote a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff -- now an adviser to his presidential campaign -- saying, ''I have heard from scores of Mr. Attouoman's students who are concerned that the loss of their teacher in the middle of this school year will not only impact their education, but also will take from our community a man who has been willing to mentor young men who lack a prominent role model in their lives."
Attouoman, who had already spent months in jail as he fought the deportation order, was granted an 11th-hour reprieve that allowed him to stay while his request for residency was considered.
But just over three years later, his appeals ran out, and in May 2008, he was taken into custody during a routine immigration check-in. Soon, he was put on a plane to Ivory Coast.
"We were devastated. We didn’t have any time to rally around him. He was detained and deported the next day," said Peggy Kemp, headmaster of Fenway High School. "He was really, really loved and respected. He was a wonderful teacher."
Kemp declined to discuss Romney's role in the case because of his presidential campaign, saying only that many local politicians spoke up for Attouoman because of the fervent support of students.
Fenway students have held fundraisers for their former teacher and many still keep in touch with him via email. But Kemp said Attouoman is "not doing well in the sense of being able to establish consistent employment" in Ivory Coast.
The Romney campaign did not return a request for comment for this article.
Attouoman’s case mirrors the type of situation that, in the current Republican debate over immigration reform, Gingrich has said merits special consideration. In a presidential debate in November, Gingrich took a more nuanced position on immigration than most of his GOP rivals.
"If you've been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you've been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don't think we're going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out," Gingrich said.
Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said in an email that aside from the Attouoman case, Romney was "fairly consistent in his unwillingness to support the issues that were so important to immigrants, like in-state (college) tuition. He never demonstrated any compassion for the terrible bind that young immigrant children were placed in, nor did he show much understanding of how the immigration system was fundamentally flawed."
She added, "From what we see and hear, Newt Gingrich seems to at least have a better grasp on the issue, though his solutions fall short of any comprehensive long term and immigration reform workable plan."