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Romney Softens Immigration Rhetoric

"Self-Deportation" isn't as bad, he says, as it sounded. A general election concession.

Posted on September 19, 2012, at 8:33 p.m. ET

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MIAMI, Fla. — In a forum televised on the largest Spanish-language television outlet in the country, Mitt Romney softened his immigration rhetoric by downplaying a key ingredient to his broadly-outlined immigration solution.

At the Univision forum hosted by the University of Miami, anchor Jorge Ramos asked Romney what he meant when he said, repeatedly during the Republican primaries, that he would rely on "self-deportation" to reduce the numbers of illegal immigrants in the country.

The candidate responded by casting the concept of self-deportation as a light-touch conceit of responsibility to the immigrants, in contrast to an aggressive effort by the government to "round up" and deport the country's undocumented population.

I'm not in favor of a deportation, mass deportation effort, rounding up 12 million people and taking them out of the country. i believe people make their own choices as to whether they want to go home and that's what i mean by self deportation, people decide if they want to go back to the country of their origin and get in line legally to be able to come to this country.

After singing the praises of "legal immigration," Romney mentioned his support for an "employment verification system," and said people who knowingly employ illegal immigrants should meet "tough sanctions." He didn't dwell on that aspect, though, and beyond that, Romney seemed to suggest that ultimately it should be up to the illegal immigrant whether they stay in the U.S.

During the primaries — when Romney was running as an immigration hardliner —he was much more specific about how, exactly, he would force illegal immigrants' hands. Then, Romney said the federal government shouldn't lead a massive deportation effort — but he called for a series of tough-minded moves to "turn off the magnet" that made undocumented people feel comfortable in the U.S.

In a Republican primary debate on September 7, 2011, Romney said this:

I learned this when I was with border patrol agents in San Diego, and they said, look, they can always get a ladder to go over the fence. And people will always run to the country. The reason they come in such great numbers is because we've left the magnet on.

And I said, what do you mean, the magnet? And they said, when employers are willing to hire people who are here illegally, that's a magnet, and it draws them in. And sanctuary cities, giving tuition breaks to the kids of illegal aliens, employers that knowingly hire people who are here illegally. Those things also have to be stopped.If we want to secure the border, we have to make sure we have a fence, determining where people are, enough agents to oversee it, and turn off that magnet. We can't talk about amnesty, we cannot give amnesty to those who have come here illegally. We've got 4.7 million people waiting in line legally. Let those people come in first, and those that are here illegally, they shouldn't have a special deal.

To a certain extent, a change in tone was to be expected in the transition from GOP primaries to general election. But for a candidate who has at times appeared to double down on his base-first strategy with other issues, Romney's softened rhetoric may signal a recognition that he can't win Florida without the Latino vote.