Rolly: Why Romney is suddenly caving in to the far right on immigration — well, he’s done it before

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Paul Rolly.

Maybe it’s a coincidence that Senate candidate Mitt Romney decided to voice his hard-line approach on immigration around the same time he is being attacked by right-wing Republicans.

Maybe it’s not.

After all, Romney has a history of tailoring his political rhetoric to fit the sentiments of the constituency he may be courting at the time.

Two stories in The Salt Lake Tribune this week showed the GOP front-runner making it clear how tough he is going to be on immigration issues.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Republican senate candidate Mitt Romney speaks and answers questions at an informal breakfast with state delegates Wednesday March 28, 2018 in Salt Lake City.

He’s going to ensure that the Dreamers — many of whom know no other country than the U.S. — be held accountable and get no free pass. And he’s pushing for a “merit-based” immigration policy in which those seeking to enter or stay in the U.S. be graded on a point system that gives advantage to those who speak English, have needed job skills or are relatively wealthy.

Romney always has been a bit hawkish on the Dreamers, opposing an earlier plan that would have given legal protection to immigrants brought here as children, but he softened his approach after President Barack Obama issued the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) order.

When he announced his candidacy last month for the seat being vacated by the retiring seven-term Sen. Orrin Hatch, he indicated a compassionate tack on immigration.

“Utah welcomes legal immigrants from around the world,” Romney said in a video. “Washington sends immigrants a message of exclusion.”

That position might have been influenced by a Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll in January that showed 69 percent of Utah voters favored a fix to DACA, allowing those young people to stay in the country.

So why shift to a harsher stance now? Romney even stressed that he is more of a hard-liner than build-a-wall President Donald Trump.

Perhaps it’s the state GOP’s far right that worries Romney.

While most Utahns favor protections for certain undocumented residents, sizable numbers of Republican delegates who have significant influence over a candidate’s success or failure in the caucus-convention system oppose such allowances.

In 2011, when the Utah Legislature passed HB116, which provided a work permit for undocumented residents, dozens of Republican delegates convened at the Utah Capitol and threatened Gov. Gary Herbert that if he didn’t veto the bill, they would make sure he would be defeated in his next re-election bid.

To his credit, the governor refused to veto the bill.

Herbert subsequently finished behind GOP challenger Jonathan Johnson in the 2016 Utah Republican Convention, although the governor easily won the primary.

Romney has indicated he will gather signatures to qualify for the GOP primary ballot, so he doesn’t need to win the delegate vote at convention. But with nearly a dozen Republicans vying for the Senate seat this year, and Romney the clear-cut favorite, a convention loss would be embarrassing.

Some ultraconservative delegates already are attacking Romney’s loyalty to the party and his adherence to its rules.

In an email to her delegates shortly after the neighborhood caucuses earlier this month, Davis County Republican Chairwoman Teena Horlacher scolded Romney for not being subservient enough.

She said he “illegally” obtained the contact information for the delegates who were elected in the caucuses and began reaching out to them before the party released their names to all the other Senate candidates.

Actually, all Romney did was ask supporters to attend the caucuses, run to be a delegate, and if they didn’t win, let his campaign know who did.

Hence, his possible concern about that far-right faction may have pushed his latest turn on immigration issues.

What’s sad is that such political posturing ignores the devastating consequences for people caught in the anti-immigrant frenzy.

The Tribune has published a number of stories about mothers, fathers and grandparents who came to the country illegally, many of them as children, who have since played by the rules, gotten jobs, reared families and regularly checked in with immigration officials under the Obama-era protections.

Now, under Trump, they are being herded up, yanked from their families and carted off to countries that essentially are foreign to them and where they have no support systems.

Hatch was once a compassionate supporter of these people but has since abandoned them to appease the anti-undocumented-immigrant throngs of his party.

It looks like Romney may be no better.

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