LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Mitt Romney promised Latinos on Thursday that he would swiftly reform the American immigration system -- once again without saying whether he would end President Obama's policy allowing some young undocumented immigrants reprieve from fear of deportation.
"Some people have asked if I will let stand the president's executive order," Romney said at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference. Romney incorrectly referred to the policy change as an order from the president instead of a directive to agencies dealing with immigration.
"The answer is that I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president's temporary measure," he said.
Romney has been under intense pressure to issue major remarks on immigration since last week, when the president issued a directive to the Department of Homeland Security to grant work authorization and halt deportation of young undocumented immigrants who would be eligible for the Dream Act.
The issue of immigration is crucially important to Latino voters, even though it ranks below jobs and the economy in most polling. On Thursday, despite declining to say how he would deal with the president's policy change, Romney finally gave some specifics for how he would handle immigration, including the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
"Our immigration system should help promote strong families, not keep them apart," he said in support of visa reform for families. "Our nation benefits when moms and dads and their kids are all living together under the same roof. But, today, too many families are caught in a broken system that costs them time and money and entangles them in red tape."
Romney's remarks were a far cry from his comments on immigration during the Republican primary, which he has since backed away from. Romney promised on Thursday to end caps on some green cards for families, and, echoing Obama, said he would "staple a green card" to the diplomas of non-citizens who obtain an advanced degree in the United States. Military service members would also be given a path to legal status.
"We want the best and brightest to enrich the nation through the jobs and technologies they're going to create," Romney said.
Those reforms would be paired with enforcement measures, such as increasing border staffing and technology and establishing "a strong employee verification system," Romney said.
The speech was an attempt to shift Romney's odds with Latino voters, a majority of whom vote Democrat and strongly supported Obama in 2008.
After Obama's deportation decision last week, Romney's attempt to turn that tide may be even more difficult.
The deportation decision didn't necessarily change everything -- both campaigns acknowledge that Latino voters rank the economy, jobs and education ahead immigration in national importance. Still, polls indicate that immigration is a personal issue for many Latino voters. About half know someone who is undocumented, and nearly a third believe the Republican Party is hostile toward Latinos in general. The Dream Act is overwhelmingly popular among Latino voters, and a poll released Monday showed that most Americans support the president's decision.
During the bruising Republican primary, Romney was one of the candidates who veered hardest to the right on immigration. He promised to veto the Dream Act and called Arizona a model to the nation for its law requiring employers to check the legal status of all job applicants using the federal E-Verify program.
Romney has also said he would implement policies that encourage undocumented people to "self-deport" by making life more difficult for them in the United States, an approach some Latinos viewed as out of touch with the ties -- including those to American family members -- that keep many unauthorized immigrants from leaving the country. The "self-deportation" model is one pushed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, one of the main authors of Arizona's "show me your papers" law, S.B. 1070, which a majority of Latino voters oppose.
As the general election has heated up, Romney has backed away from the issue of immigration, and has mostly avoided giving specifics about how he would deal with Obama's decision on Dream Act students, such as whether he would end the policy that now allows many to stay.
On Thursday, he had no choice but to address it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that the GOP in Congress was waiting for Romney to take the lead, likely at the conference here, on the party's response to Obama. Reporters are also dogging the Romney campaign with questions, so much that a call with reporters on Wednesday was cut short when the press asked repeatedly about immigration rather than the economy.
Romney campaign spokesman Alberto Martinez attempted to frame the speech in terms of the economy in an email to reporters on Thursday morning that promised Romney would enact policies on day one to "get our economy moving again for Hispanics and all Americans."
During his NALEO speech, Romney did the same, devoting some of his time to talking about the need for economic policies that help lower Latino unemployment. Romney pointed out the disproportionately high level of unemployment among Latinos, 11 percent of whom are without work.
"Over two million more Hispanics are living in poverty today than the day when President Obama took office," Romney said. "Home values have plunged, our national debt is at record levels and families are buried under higher prices for food and gasoline. And yet the president says the private sector is doing fine. This is more than a policy failure; it is a moral failure."
Romney preempted the president's speech, which will be made on Friday at the conference. He said the president will tell Latinos they have no choice but him.
"He’ll imply that you really don’t have an alternative," Romney said. "He’s taking your vote for granted."
This is a developing story and will be updated.
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