NEW YORK -- One of the cleanest shots Mitt Romney scored on Barack Obama on Tuesday night was over the president's promise, made during the 2008 campaign, to have an immigration bill introduced in his first year in office.
"He said in his first year he'd put out an immigration plan that would deal with our immigration challenges," Romney pointed out. "Didn't even file it."
That charge is true. Obama didn't even come close to introducing an immigration bill in his first year. Only this year, under pressure from frustrated activists, did he make the much smaller step of taking administrative action to defer the deportation of younger undocumented immigrants.
But the history of what has happened with comprehensive immigration reform since 2008 should give voters pause if they believe Romney's promise that he will fix immigration. Obama has run into many obstacles placed by a right wing unwilling to entertain any variation on "amnesty" for immigrants.
As Romney pointed out, Obama had a Democratic House and Senate to work with in his first year of office. But as Obama responded, the economy was in freefall and he was forced to concentrate on other matters. The president also made a fateful decision similar to his one on health care: he left the crafting of immigration reform up to members of Congress.
By March 2010, Obama's idea was to get behind a joint proposal by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). He called their progress "promising."
Later that month the Affordable Care Act, into which Obama had invested much of his political capital, passed. Graham said immigration reform was "dead" that year because the unrelated issue of health care had "poisoned the well."
In April, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed her state's draconian SB 1070 bill into law. An already tense discussion over immigration turned into a shouting fest. Widespread support for Brewer's bill among national Republicans made clear that winning their support for immigration reform in the Senate would be just as difficult as it was for the health bill.
After the Arizona law passed, Graham's change of heart went even further -- not only was comprehensive reform dead that year, it was dead until border violence stopped.
“If immigration comes up this year, it will be absolutely devastating to this issue," he said. “Most Americans think we will have lost our minds if we move forward without securing our border first.”
Instead, he suggested, “we can do it by 2012 if we’re smart and address the big elephant in the room," referring to drug war violence in Mexico.
Come 2012, very little has happened. A bill with vastly reduced ambitions called the Dream Act, that would have offered a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who attend college, was filibustered by Senate Republicans at the end of 2010. Once considered a reasonable proposal even by conservative Republicans like Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), it has become political toxin on the right.
If the Dream Act ever does pass, Romney says he would veto it. During the primaries Romney took the same tough stance on immigration as the rest of the Republican field, as Obama noted during the debate, even to the point of calling on the undocumented to "self-deport."
Neither candidate offered much in the way of specifics to the original question asked on Tuesday night: what to do about undocumented immigrants already in the country. In the past Obama has issued that immigration framework. The White House's May 2011 Blueprint for Immigration Reform says then that undocumented immigrants would have to "pay their taxes, pay a fine, and fully integrate into the United States by learning English" to become legal.
Romney, on the other hand, has said simply that he will "pursue permanent immigration reform," without offering details.