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Did Romney self-deport his immigration plan?

Mitt Romney may be softening his hardline position on immigration. Or he might not be. This is Mitt Romney we're talking about.
Mitt Romney addresses the audience at a GOP rally in Virginia Beach, Va., Sept. 8, 2012.
Mitt Romney addresses the audience at a GOP rally in Virginia Beach, Va., Sept. 8, 2012.

Mitt Romney may be softening his old policy of "self-deportation" for undocumented immigrants, a move that many Republicans blame for his dismal performance with Latinos in 2012. 

Or he may not be. This is still Mitt Romney we're talking about, after all. 

In an interview with CBS News Friday, Romney said he was "absolutely convinced" the party needed to deal with immigration moving forward.

Asked specifically whether he supported a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for the undocumented, Romney replied: “I don’t think those who come here illegally should jump to the front of the line or be given a special deal, be rewarded for coming here illegally, but I think they should have a chance, just like anybody else, to get in line and to become a citizen if they would like to do so."

The context and the tone suggested he was offering up a less harsh immigration policy. Jordan Fabian at Fusion labeled the remarks a "startling about-face" that suggested he was now open to unauthorized immigrants remaining in America while they seek legal status. 

But it's actually difficult to tell what he means. Part of the problem is that the way immigration is often discussed among politicians—especially Republican politicians—is through a confusing mess of deliberately ambiguous talking points. Romney's comments, which send subtle signals to supporters and opponents of reform alike that he agrees with them, are a prime example.

Take his "get in line" idea. Among anti-immigration Republicans, a common talking point for years has been that undocumented immigrants should leave the country and try to come back later through the legal process—never mind how cumbersome and broken it is today. Romney made clear that's how he envisioned things working in 2012. 

"The answer is self-deportation,” Romney said in a Florida debate. “People who come here legally would be given a transition period to work here, but then they would no longer have the documentation to stay here. We’d have a card that says who is here legally. If they’re not here legally, they’re going to find they can’t get work here. Ultimately, with this transition period, they would get in line at home.

But supporters of the Senate's immigration reform plan from the president down claim that their bill already forces undocumented immigrants to the "back of the line" and is not a "special path to citizenship" since certain types of immigrants who are not undocumented would be able to access it first. Some House Republicans define the "back of the line" and "no special path to citizenship" differently still, suggesting that immigrants should be able to gain limited legal status through new legislation, but permanent residence and citizenship only through existing paths like marriage or work visas.

Which policy framework does Romney mean? From his tone and the context it sounds like he's sympathetic to the latter groups. But he never actually says in the interview that unauthorized immigrants should be able to stay in the country legally while they work things out.

It's worth nothing that Romney has defended his "self-deportation" position since the election, which he called a "compassionate approach" in an interview with Washington Post reporter Dan Balz for his book Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America.

He also gave a similarly ambiguous answer to the one he offered CBS in a March interview with Fox News when asked about a path to citizenship, while adding "others in my party" might find a compromise he'd support.

MITT ROMNEY: People who have come here illegally should not be given a special pathway to permanent residency or citizenship in this country merely because they've come here illegally.

So I have that position. But I understand others have different positions. Others in my party do. And to finally resolve this issue is going to require people of differing views to come together and see if there could be some compromise or some common ground. And I hope that happens. I believe that will happen.

For what it's worth, several of Romney's top advisers and aides are working for pro-immigration groups right now. His Hispanic outreach chair, Carlos Gutierrez, founded Republicans For Immigration Reform after the election, a Super PAC designed to give conservatives cover to vote "yes" on a final deal. 

As for Romney, he's still all things to all people. Depending on how he chooses to fill in the details later, his post-election comments could just as easily put him in the anti camp on immigration reform as they could the pro camp.