Can Mitt Romney win the Hispanic vote in Florida?

Editor’s Note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist.

Story highlights

Ruben Navarrette Jr. says Mitt Romney has been inconsistent on the immigration issue

He says that on the campaign trail, Romney had advanced a position that is anti-immigrant

Navarrette: But in Florida Romney has softened his stance

He says that Latinos don't forget so easily Romney's previous anti-immigrant rhetoric

Miami, Florida CNN  — 

Responding angrily to a campaign ad from Newt Gingrich accusing him of being anti-immigrant, Mitt Romney insisted during last week’s Republican debate at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville that he has no problem with immigrants.

Perhaps not. But the dishonest and cynical way in which the former governor of Massachusetts has dealt with the immigration issue on the campaign trail shows that he has a problem being consistent.

In Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Romney attacked Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for immigration proposals that Romney said amounted to “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.

But last week, in Florida, where Hispanics account for 22.5 percent of the population, we caught a glimpse of a kinder and gentler Romney. He told the Hispanic Leadership Network, a center-right group, that he would create a “temporary worker permit” for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

However, Romney said, when the permit expires, workers wouldn’t be forced to leave the United States. Instead, they would decide their next move themselves depending on their job prospects. His hope is that, at this point, many illegal immigrants would simply “self-deport.”

Good luck with that. Like former Wyoming Sen. Al Simpson used to say: “There is nothing more permanent than a temporary worker.” People fall in love. They get married. They have children. And it becomes harder to remove them, even if we wanted to. Besides, it’s not clear that Romney wants to remove anyone. The idea of voluntary deportation is absurd.

I bet none of this is going over very well with the voters in the first three primary states who cast their lots for Romney, thinking he was going to be tough on illegal immigration only to find out that he doesn’t even have the stomach to forcibly deport undocumented immigrants.

Maybe Romney should ask President Barack Obama for pointers. The Obama administration has deported more than 1.2 million illegal immigrants and offers no apologies.

Meanwhile, in a telenovela unique to the Florida primary, a group of Latinos who supports Romney called on Gingrich to yank a commercial labeling the frontrunner “anti-immigrant.” A similar request came from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who while not endorsing Romney, defended him against the charge that he was anti-immigrant.

Who does Rubio think he is? His own history with the immigration issue is spotty at best.

In 2011, Rubio joined Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas in his efforts to require businesses to participate in a government-run “e-verify” program which is supposed to tell them if a Social Security number is authentic.

Rubio also supports the Arizona immigration law – and presumably others like it around the country – which forces local and state law officials to enforce federal immigration statutes. In addition, he opposes the DREAM Act, which would give legal status to illegal immigrants who go to college or serve in the military because he considers it “part of some broader effort to grant blanket amnesty.”

Last week, in a good speech to the Hispanic Leadership Network, Rubio acknowledged that many Republicans – including himself – have been slow to condemn anti-immigrant rhetoric from other Republicans.

Still, I don’t care what Rubio says. Romney has, in this campaign, advanced a tone that is “anti-immigrant.”

It was Romney who – bringing back a tactic he used in 2008 against Arizona Sen. John McCain – painted Rick Perry as soft on illegal immigration. Romney attacked Perry for signing a bill in the Lone Star State that allowed undocumented students to attend state colleges and universities and pay in-state tuition rates. The narrative that Romney pushed was simple: “Illegal immigrants are takers. They take advantage of in-state tuition rates. They take spots in university campuses that should go to U.S. citizens. They take, take, and take some more.” Never did Romney mention all that illegal immigrants contribute to society – by paying taxes, increasing productivity, creating competition, and doing jobs that Americans won’t do.

Later, with Perry vanquished into the single digits, Romney used the same line of attack against Gingrich, accusing him of advocating a kind of amnesty for illegal immigrants after Gingrich said that he wanted to provide undocumented workers with a “red card” that allowed them to work legally in the country. Romney accused Gingrich of letting illegal immigrants take jobs from American workers.

Now as he competes this week for Hispanic votes in Florida – and, on Feb 4, in Nevada, where Latinos account for 26.5 percent of the population – Romney must be hoping that Latinos have bad memories.

We don’t. We never forget a slight. And, in that respect, Romney has given us plenty to remember.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are soley those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.