Mitt Romney caught many people off guard on Friday with his sharp rebuke of the Trump administration’s exclusionary tone on immigration as he announced his campaign to represent Utah in the US Senate.
“Utah welcomes legal immigrants from around the world – Washington sends immigrants a message of exclusion,” Romney said in the video he posted announcing his run.
Romney did not mention President Donald Trump’s name – and don’t expect him to do that much in this new endeavor – but he was clearly expressing his disdain for Trump’s derogatory comments about immigrants from Mexico during the 2016 campaign, as well as Trump’s recent pronouncement that he wanted less immigrants from “shithole countries.”
Still, Romney’s statement in his announcement was surprising because it was so much gentler than the tone he struck during the 2012 primary campaign when he tried to woo conservative activists in his party with his call for the “self-deportation” of undocumented immigrants.
His fresh message of inclusion reflects the moderate position of many Utah Republicans on immigration, which is shaped by the progressive stance of the Mormon Church here as well as the individual experiences of many Mormons during their two-year missions abroad.
“It’s a double message that he’s sending there: one, America is about immigrants, it always has been, and Utah recognizes that and the value it brings,” said Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News and the former chief of staff to Utah Sen. Mike Lee. “And that we can solve these problems, when Washington is so dysfunctional.”
Beyond that, Matheson noted that the history of the state and church has generated great compassion for immigrants and refugees.
Utah “was really a bunch of exiles who had been pushed out of (other parts of) the country, so Utahns understand that component,” Matheson said. “Then you have the missionary effort of the LDS church where you have so many who have gone and lived in these countries, and have great love for the people and the cultures. So they know the inherent good in people from around the world. So it’s very open, and very welcoming.”
More than half of Utahns – including Romney – belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and the historical persecution of members of the Mormon Church is deeply ingrained in their views and value systems.
In the 1830s, members of the church fled from the East Coast to Ohio, and then Missouri. It was in Missouri where Gov. Lilburn Boggs issued an “extermination order” in 1838 for all Mormons to be “exterminated or driven from the state.” Ultimately, many members of the church settled in Utah.
In 2011, in the midst of a heated immigration debate, the Mormon church alluded to that history as it outlined its position on immigration – calling for compassion, reverence for family, and commitment to law, while noting that the “bedrock moral issue” for the church “is how we treat each other as children of God.”
“The history of mass expulsion or mistreatment of individuals or families is cause for concern especially where race, culture or religion are involved,” the 2011 statement from the church said. “This should give pause to any policy that contemplates targeting any one group, particularly if that group comes mostly from one heritage.”
Departure from 2012 stance
As he’s stepped back into the national spotlight in recent months, Romney has struck a moderate tone on immigration – compassion for the 11,000 Dreamers in Utah, an increase in legal immigration to meet the needs of Utah’s booming economy as well as his desire for states to have more input on the nation’s immigration policies to reflect labor shortages in certain sectors.
But Romney is better known nationally for his tough talk on immigration as a presidential candidate in 2012. As he sought to outflank rivals like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Romney tacked far to the right on immigration – savaging Perry, for example, for supporting in-state tuition benefits for undocumented Texas students.
In that campaign, Romney made it clear that he did not favor rounding people up and deporting them. When he was pressed to explain how he would send immigrants home, he uttered his much-mocked call for “self-deportation,” which cost him the votes of many Latinos in the general election.
“The answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can’t find work here,” he said in that January 2012 debate.
During a New Year’s Eve stop in Iowa, Romney also said he would veto the DREAM Act, which (in that iteration) would have provided a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children if they attended college or served in the military. (As a caveat, he said favored granting a path to permanent residency for those who agreed to serve in the military.)
He softened his tone during the general election, stating that he was open to a long-term solution for the so-called Dreamers. After President Barack Obama suspended the deportations of those immigrants during the summer of 2012, Romney said he favored a longer-term solution.
“I believe the status of young people who come here through no fault of their own is an important matter to be considered and should be solved on a long-term basis so they know what their future would be in this country,” Romney said in New Hampshire in June 2012. He presciently noted that Obama’s policy “could be reversed by subsequent presidents.”
Utah’s immigration needs
More recently, Romney has spoken about the immigration issue through the lens of Utah, which is facing a shortage of hourly workers in trades like construction, as well as high-skilled workers in tech and computer science.
Last month during a forum at the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce, he said he favored more legal immigration to meet those labor needs in a state economy that has an unemployment rate of 3.1%.
“I like legal immigration. If we didn’t have any legal immigration, our population wouldn’t grow,” Romney said, highlighting the need for a larger labor force. “I’d like to bring people in who have the skills, experience, language capacity and so forth to contribute to the economy. And so I do favor a merit-oriented immigration policy.”
He added that he was “not a fan” of the DREAM Act when it was first proposed, but that Obama made a promise to the so-called Dreamers and they registered with the federal government relying on that promise.
“To somehow say, ‘Well, you registered and you relied on this, but now we’re going to change the rules,’ that would not be seen by the American people as playing fair with the expectations of those individuals.”
Romney added that he was not “looking to see vast deportments of people from the United States,” but would like to see an effective E-Verify system that penalizes employers who don’t follow the rules to crack down on illegal immigration. He said he also would like to explore the idea of allowing states to have more input on visas for temporary workers tailored to determine kind of workers enter the country.
“I’d like states to be able to go to the federal government and say ‘Here’s what we need,’” he said. “Immigration is part of how our economy works, but it’s out of control. And I think my Republican friends in Washington are trying to get their hands around it and deal with it so we can finally get this issue settled in a way that’s good for the immigrants, and good for our citizens, and good for our economy.”