South Carolina might be south of New Hampshire, but Mitt Romney just took a hard right out of Manchester to get there.
Today he proudly announced the endorsement of Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State and anti-immigrant restrictionist. Kobach's claim to fame, as touted in Romney's press release, is that he authored the strict Arizona and South Carolina immigration laws. The Arizona law, dubbed by critics the "show me your papers" statute, has been blocked pending review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Romney is obviously betting an extremist line on immigration will help him going into South Carolina and dispel any notion that he is a "Massachusetts moderate", the label bestowed upon him by Newt Gingrich. During the GOP debates Gingrich -- who is polling in South Carolina at nearly 20%, more formidable than the 10% he received in New Hampshire -- flatly rejected mass deportation as a solution to America's broken immigration system. Romney, for his part, relied on little more than tired sound bites about securing the border and building fences. While the South Carolina polls show Romney is at 31%, Gingrich is getting ready to welcome him to the Palmetto State with a barrage of negative ads, in particular attacks on his affinity for "firing people" when he was with Bain Capital.
But by embracing Kris Kobach and the Arizona/South Carolina draconian immigration laws he authored, Romney has boxed himself into the dark, ugly corner of the fringe anti-immigrant crowd who, when it comes to immigration reform, do little more than throw around phrases like "amnesty" and "illegal aliens". The subtext of these words is sinister-that America is under a Latino invasion which threatens our culture, language, and way of life. Fixing America's badly broken immigration system is not part of the restrictionist agenda. What they want, pure and simple, is to put an end to immigration, period. And since they have no serious plan to reform immigration, anti-immigrant extremists like Kobach, with whom Romney is now squarely aligned, rely on ethnically charged words and innuendo.
While it may help him in South Carolina, Romney's lean to the extreme right on immigration may cost him dearly down the road should he ultimately become the Republican nominee. The obvious fallout with Latino voters aside, anti-immigration agendas have rarely served American politicians well; just ask former California Governor Pete Wilson, former Rep. JD Hayworth, and former Rep. Tom Tancredo. That's because, as the polls show, Americans are a compassionate people. They want the broken immigration system fixed, and a humane solution, including a pathway to legal status, for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country. The mass deportation "cattle car" approach espoused by the restrictionists is neither feasible nor humane.
To win the fall Romney will need to support an immigration policy that secures the border, protects families, keeps the U.S. globally competitive, and restores civil liberties. The American people long for immigration solutions, not the hate filled rhetoric of the anti-immigrant fringe.
Unfortunately for Romney, it may now be too late.
David Leopold is the past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.