Utah Sen. Mitt Romney says America has become an ‘asylum magnet’ for an overwhelming flow of immigrants

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Sen. Mitt Romney meets state lawmakers at the Utah Capitol as he speaks with members of the Republican House Caucus during a series of meetings on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019.

Sen. Mitt Romney stopped well short Sunday of agreeing with President Donald Trump that “our country is full,” and there’s no room for more immigrants. But he described America as an “asylum magnet,” whose immigration system is being overwhelmed.

“We’re seeing unaccompanied young people as well as families with kids pouring into the border, and they say the magic word, ‘I’m seeking asylum,' " Romney said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “They’re being just turned out into our country — 125,000 of them so far this year. It’s overwhelming our system. We have got to be able to deal with this.”

Romney sidestepped specifics when asked about the president’s various suggestions and threats — to close the border, to cut off aid to Central America, to impose punishing tariffs.

He said Republicans and Democrats in Congress are going to have to come together, “generally with presidential leadership,” to “deal with this asylum issue that’s really overwhelming our system.”

Romney didn’t offer any suggestions, just reiterated that the border wall — he referred to it as a “fence” — needs to be completed and the country needs to have a more reliable and universally adopted e-verify system for screening workers.

While immigration isn’t a partisan issue, he said, “This is a winning issue, I think, for Republicans and, more importantly, it’s a winning issue for Americans. … The president has tapped into something which the people feel very deeply.”

Romney, a former two-time presidential candidate who was among Trump’s harshest critics during the 2016 primaries, still has a reputation of being one of the few Republicans in Congress unafraid of openly criticizing the president. But he took pains Sunday not to say anything that could be construed as attacking Trump.

On health care, many Republicans have been alarmed and angered that Trump has recently reopened the debate about repealing the Affordable Care Act after health care proved a losing issue for the GOP in the midterm elections.

Romney said Sunday he remains an advocate of repealing Obamacare, but only as Washington figures out a replacement plan that relies on a stronger federal-state partnership.

He had few specifics, saying “a number of senators are working on" such a plan.

“I think what you’re going to see from Republicans is a federal-state partnership where the federal government sets the parameters and the states are given more flexibility to come up with ways to care for their own low-income individuals. I think a federal-state partnership is a much wiser way to go.”

While Utah politicians have long fought to dump Obamacare, Utah voters approved the program’s full Medicaid expansion in November that would have insured an estimated 150,000 low-income residents. It was quickly replaced by the GOP-controlled Legislature, scaling back its scope in what lawmakers said was motivated by an attempt to keep costs in check.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, displayed what seemed to be some confusion over what lawmakers in his adopted state of Utah did in substituting their SB96 for the voter-approved Proposition 3.

“The Legislature in Utah said, ‘Look, if we’re going to expand our Medicaid population, we’re going to only do so as long as the federal government is picking up 90% of the bill. But if the federal government tries to back off that 90% number, then we, the state Legislature, don’t want to pick up the bill.’ I think it’s a reasonable position that the Legislature has taken.”

Actually, lawmakers implemented a “bridge plan” under which the federal government will cover only 70% of the state’s costs for the estimated 90,000 people eligible for Medicaid. They meanwhile are requesting a federal waiver that would allow a full 90% match, but there are no guarantees of that happening.

Prop 3 would have qualified for the full 90% match from Day One.

“Instead of the state expanding only in the case of a 90/10 federal match rate," Stacy Stanford, an analyst with the Utah Health Policy Project said, Utah lawmakers "just got approval to go ahead with volunteering to pay three times as much [70/30] to cover half as many people.”

Stanford lamented the new coverage gaps in which “far too many Utahns will fall through the cracks" and could lead to costly legal battles. “We are committed to fighting the harmful and illegal aspects of these waivers so we can end up with a full expansion at 90/10 that was promised as a backup plan in SB96.”

On another topic, Romney criticized Democrats, rather than the president, over their continued attempts to make his tax returns public.

“I’d like the president to follow through and show his tax returns,” Romney, who loudly called for that to happen during the 2016 presidential campaign, said. “But I have to also tell you I think Democrats are just playing along his handbook. Going after his tax returns through legislative action is moronic. That’s not going to happen.”

Romney said there are areas of disagreement with Trump, and he cited tariffs on steel and aluminum. He had nothing but praise, however, for his actions on taxes and reduced regulations.

“Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd suggested that Trump and Romney might be seen as representing the two views of conservatism in the party, and he asked about whether there might, or should, be a Republican presidential primary in 2020.

Romney was not about to say anything to suggest he might consider challenging Trump.

“Whether or not there’s a primary, time will tell,” Romney said. “But parties typically do just fine when there’s a primary.”