Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette
San Diego, California (CNN) -- Now that President Obama has put the immigration issue front and center, Mitt Romney can't avoid the subject any longer.
Romney needs to answer two simple questions: "What specifically are you going to do about the estimated 800,000 "DREAM'ers" at the center of President Obama's announcement last week -- those young illegal immigrants under age 31 who, because they've graduated from high school or served in the military, are being told they'll be spared deportation? Would you deport them or let them stay in the United States?"
And during his speech Thursday to the annual conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, here is the closest that Romney came to an answer:
"Some people have asked if I will let stand the president's executive action," he told the organization. "The answer is that I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president's temporary measure. As president, I won't settle for a stop-gap measure. I will work with Republicans and Democrats to find a long-term solution."
And? Surely, Romney must have an idea of what he thinks the proper solution should be. Why not share it?
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee promised to "strengthen legal immigration and make it easier" while dealing with illegal immigration in a "civil but resolute manner." If foreigners get an advanced degree in the United States, Romney wants to "staple a green card" to their diploma, and support "a path to legal status" for anyone who joins the military.
He added that, if elected, he would "redouble our efforts to secure the borders" with more border patrol agents and high-tech fencing. He also promised to create a "strong employment verification system" so that employers know who is legally eligible to work and who isn't, and improve temporary worker programs.
Romney envisioned an immigration system that helps "promote strong families, not keep them apart."
But he was talking about legal immigrants and what needs to be done to make sure that those who seek to come to the United States legally are able to, as he put it, "keep their families under one roof." One thing that he plans to do is "exempt from caps the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents."
That's a wonderful sentiment, and I support it wholeheartedly. But the way we deal with legal immigrants isn't the only part of the system that is broken. What about families in this country that are currently being devastated by the gung-ho deportation policies of the Obama administration? How about promising to keep them together under one roof?
Notwithstanding last week's announcement, the administration has ratcheted up the immigration enforcement apparatus to the point where nearly 400,000 illegal immigrants are removed each year. That's also the annual capacity of the system, according to what top immigration officials have told me.
With the resources they have and the legal constraints they have to work with, this administration couldn't remove any more people if it wanted to. Add it up and that's more than 1.2 million in the 3½ years that Obama has been in office, and hundreds of thousands of families that have been split up to prove to critics that this president is sufficiently tough on the undocumented.
As a member of a party that has botched its handling of the immigration issue -- at the local, state and federal level -- with harsh rhetoric, simplistic solutions and transparent efforts to pander to nativists and racists, Romney doesn't have to prove he'll be tough on illegal immigration. He has to prove he'll be something that Republicans usually aren't when it comes to immigration: smart and compassionate.
That's hard when you're afraid to tell us specifically what you would do to offer a permanent solution to the immigration question. That is: What to do with nearly a million people who may have been born in another country but only know this one and who are Americans in every way other than legal status.
I understand why Romney might not be eager to wade in. Obama put his opponent in a box. If Romney says he'll find a way to let the DREAM'ers stay, his right-wing supporters will come unhinged. If he says they'd be deported, or at least go back to being eligible for deportation, he'll come across as heartless and won't capture even a sliver of the all-important Latino vote. According to the polls, Romney isn't going to get much of that anyway, but he needs to carve out a respectable percentage -- at least 30% -- to avoid losing the election.
I'll give Romney some credit for saying more about immigration on Thursday than he has in any other single speech in this campaign. He did a lot to explain his views, and it was certainly an improvement on what has been his silly stock answer up to now about how he'd like illegal immigrants to simply "self-deport." But, when it comes to the DREAM'ers, he could have -- and should have -- said a lot more.
Granted, that wouldn't have been easy. But then, as evidenced by Obama's failure in the immigration arena, leadership never is.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.