Mitt Romney softened his position on the Dream Act during Monday night's debate, saying he would support legislation to provide legal status to some undocumented immigrants who want to join the military.
It's a statement he's made before, but was previously far more insistent that he would veto the Dream Act than show interest in passing part of it. Under the Dream Act, which has been around in some form for more than a decade, undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children would be allow to stay under strict conditions, including a clean criminal record and "good moral character," should they join the military or attend college for two years.
Adam Smith, one of the debate's moderators, asked Newt Gingrich whether he would veto the Dream Act if it came to his desk, pointing out that Romney and Rick Santorum have said they would without question kill the bill.
Gingrich said he would support part of the bill that would allow for legal status for those who joined the military -- a more centrist position that is more likely to appeal to Latino voters, who make up a large bloc of Florida voters and who largely support the Dream Act.
Romney, perhaps realizing that his statement on vetoing the Dream Act won't play as well in Florida as it might have in Iowa and South Carolina, chimed in.
"I'd just noted that's the same position that I have, and that's that I wouldn't sign the Dream Act as it currently exists, but I would sign the Dream Act if it were focused on military service," Romney said, interrupting Gingrich's answer.
Romney is attempting to toe the line on immigration issues. In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley, who campaigned for him, mentioned in every introduction that he would support the state's contested immigration law, which is designed to drive undocumented immigrants out of the U.S. He received an endorsement from Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and a key architect of those state laws.
But Romney also touts endorsements from Florida Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, all of whom have publicly said they disagree with his views on the Dream Act.
His soft act on immigration didn't last long, though. Smith's next question to Romney was about his statements on driving undocumented immigrants out of the U.S. He has said both that he wouldn't round up the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country, but also that he would make them leave.
"The answer is self-deportation," Romney said. "People decide that they do better by going home because they can't find work here because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work here.
Romney said that by cracking down on employers people would leave the U.S.
"Isn't that what we have now?" moderator Adam Smith interjected. "If somebody doesn't feel they have the opportunity in America, they can go back any time they want to."
Romney said under his system there would be a card that indicates who is here legally, and that card would be used for employment under the E-Verify system. If people could not find work, they would then go home -- essentially the same point he was making before Smith's question.
"If people don't get work here they're going to self-deport to a place where they can get work," Romney said.
Smith followed up with Rick Santorum, asking him whether "self-deportation" is a valid concept.
"It's happening now, people are going back now," Santorum said. "They can't find jobs because of the economy and the lack of economic opportunities."