On immigration, Romney favors a border wall and merit-based citizenship; Wilson opposes wall, supports legal status for undocumented residents already here

(Tribune file photos) Mitt Romney and Jenny Wilson

The immigration system in the United States is badly broken, says Republican Senate candidate Mitt Romney, and it’s “quintessential Washington” that everyone agrees change is needed but nothing on the issue has happened in decades.

“It’s been a long time," Romney said, "which is a pox on both houses — Republican and Democrat — and a lack of leadership.”

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and two-time presidential candidate, said immigration reform would be one of his top priorities if elected to the seat of retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. And Romney’s Democratic opponent, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, has similarly focused on the subject of immigration during her campaign.

“It was a topic of conversation in Congress in the ’90s — the need to reform, the need to pass something,” Wilson said. “My position has consistently been that we need comprehensive, family-centered and compassionate immigration reform.”

Compared to other campaign issues, the two candidates are relatively close together on the subject of immigration. Both oppose mass deportations and family separation, and support investments in border security and legal protections for so-called “Dreamers," or residents brought into the country illegally as children.

But the details are where Romney and Wilson diverge, with his favoring a physical wall on the southern border and a merit-based point system for awarding citizenship, and her belief that undocumented but otherwise law-abiding residents should be free to live “out of the shadows.”

“Let’s do what is compassionate and what will actually serve our economy,” Wilson said, “and let people step forward, be registered and get on a path to permanent legal status.”

Waiting in line

In debates and public statements, Romney has spoken of the need for people currently in the country illegally to “get in line" to earn legal status and citizenship.

But no such line exists. Instead, immigrating and naturalization into the United States involves a complex and labyrinthine series of procedures and requirements that many people are unable to navigate without the help of an attorney.

Asked to clarify, Romney says that some form of a line, with a clear and transparent progression, would be a component of improving the immigration system.

“I would like to see something that is a lot simpler," Romney said, “so that there is, in effect, a line.”

As described by Romney, the line would function as an online registration system. Individuals would apply and be awarded points based on qualifications like their ability to speak English, family members in the United States, job skills and education level. There would be an ability to check an application’s progress, and additional points would be awarded based on the time spent waiting for approval.

Dreamers would not have a special pathway to citizenship, Romney said, but by nature of their time spent in the United States would likely score highly in the point system as they apply.

“They would certainly be toward the top of the line,” he said, “if not the very top.”

Romney said the point system, combined with a physical barrier at the border, visa tracking and sanctions for companies that employ undocumented workers, would establish a working system for future immigrants to enter the country legally. Only at that point, he said, could the nation discuss what to do with the millions of immigrants currently living in the United States despite entering illegally.

“If you have those things in place, in my opinion, you basically shut down much of the illegal entry into the United States,” Romney said. “If you don’t have that in place, then you create an enormous attraction for people to get in here quickly.”

But Wilson said there is a need to immediately address the community of immigrants currently in the country, beginning with Dreamers and followed by the millions of other residents who illegally entered the country.

“We get people living here whose entire social networks and families are being impacted by living in the shadows,” Wilson said. “The consequences of not doing anything far outweigh the consequences of acting and acting compassionately.”

Deportation, ICE and family separation

Deportations should be limited to perpetrators of violent and other serious crimes, Wilson said. And even in those cases, she said, it may be more efficient and cost-effective to detain perpetrators in U.S. prisons.

She does not support the abolishment of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) — as some Democrats have called for — but believes the agency should be reformed.

“Let’s get ICE back to getting the bad guys and drug dealers,” she said.

Wilson said she supports upholding the border laws as they currently stand but was critical of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, which led to a surge in the number of families separated and children detained at the southern border.

“We cannot go through a system where we leave a child alone in a cage and walk away thinking we may or may not reunite,” she said.

During his 2012 presidential run, Romney was criticized for suggesting “self-deportation” of undocumented residents. In interviews with The Tribune, he said the distinction he had tried to make was that of forced removal by a government entity and individual decision-making based on economic and legal factors.

“Self-deportation is you make your own decision — people decide whether they want to stay or whether they want to go,” Romney said. “I’m not in favor of buses and ICE agents going across the country, rounding up 11 million people and deporting them all.”

Romney described family separations as a “human tragedy.” He said he welcomes legal immigration as the country’s “lifeblood," essential to continued growth.

“The whole setting right now, it’s not fair to the undocumented,” Romney said. “And it’s not fair to the people who want to come legally.”

Border wall

The construction of a border wall was a key plank in President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, and Romney said he supports the completion of a physical barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

But he added that natural, geographical features combined with surveillance could be practical in some areas, such as mountainous regions or along the Rio Grande.

“For me, it’s whatever is an effective physical barrier," he said.

Wilson said the border should be secured, and she’s willing to work with Republicans on security measures. But she added that there are more effective, and less expensive, approaches than a roughly 2,000-mile-long divider envisioned by Trump and some conservatives.

“The Donald Trump wall is irrational,” she said.

Romney then and now

Wilson has repeatedly criticized her opponent for his past statements on immigration during the 2012 presidential campaign. His comments at the time came across as “disconnected and heartless,” she said.

“His record on this has been all over the map,” Wilson said. "It does not show leadership.”

In 2012, while running against then-President Barack Obama, Romney stated that he opposed — and would veto — The DREAM Act, for which “Dreamers” were named and which served as the basis for Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA.

Under the policy, individuals brought into the country illegally as children were allowed to apply for and receive work permits and protection from deportation for renewable two-year periods.

Romney, who now supports establishing permanent protections for DACA recipients, said his shift in position reflects the result of the 2012 election.

“He won, and I lost,” Romney said of Obama. “These Dreamers relied upon his representation and people are entitled to rely upon the promise of a president of the United States.”