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The Candidates on Immigration

Issue Tracker

Updated: October 18, 2012
This publication is now archived.

While the U.S. domestic economy and the country's global competitiveness are the headliners in the 2012 presidential campaign, immigration reform remains a hotly contested topic for both political parties and its presidential candidates. The proliferation of state-based restrictive immigration laws (exemplified by Arizona's SB1070) and the question of reprieve for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, in particular, have revealed the growing divide between the two presidential candidates' positions with regard to this issue.

With Latinos acknowledged as an important constituency in the presidential election, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have both attempted to appeal to the voting bloc via immigration reform. Obama, whose immigration policies have resulted in a record number of deportations in his first term, spearheaded a new policy this past June that granted deportation immunity to some undocumented immigrants who arrived as children. Meanwhile, as Romney has moved toward the Republican nomination, he has attempted to distance himself from his campaign's earlier embrace of the party's hardline stance against undocumented immigrants.

Obama and Romney agree that serious fixes are needed to reform the U.S. immigration system, including a plan to address the estimated eleven million undocumented immigrants in the country. While both candidates have called for improving the country's policies for bolstering legal immigration to spur entrepreneurship, they remain divided over whether the country should offer undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship and government services or expel them from the country.

Editor's Note: Click here for more CFR Issue Trackers and other 2012 campaign resources, which examine the foreign policy and national security dimensions of the presidential race.

Barack Obama

Democratic Incumbent, Running Mate Joe Biden

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President Obama favors comprehensive reform, and his "blueprint for immigration reform" (PDF) notes that his administration has doubled the number of Border Patrol agents on the southern border. Under his watch, Border Patrol agents have begun using unmanned drones to collect intelligence along the border and have installed more than 600 miles of fencing on the border with Mexico. He has stepped up deportations of undocumented immigrants (AS/COA), prioritizing those "who pose a danger to national security or public safety." Under President Obama, the number of annual deportations has reached a record high of about 400,000 (Pew).

The president also pushed for passage of the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), which would grant a path to citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants who attended college or went into the military. He advocates mandatory use of E-Verify systems, which allow employers to determine the citizenship status of potential employees, and he supports increased penalties on employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. President Obama's administration has also overseen the expansion of the Secure Communities program, which authorizes local law enforcement to share information about detained persons with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Obama said in a May 2011 speech that improving the immigration system would end "a massive underground economy that exploits a cheap source of labor while depressing wages for everybody else." He also ties job creation to an improved visa system for legal immigration. His blueprint advocates a "start-up visa" to allow foreign investors to open businesses in the United States. He backs the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Securities Act (AgJOBS), which allows farms to legally hire foreign workers. Obama also supports reform of the H1B visa process, but does not explicitly advocate increasing the visa's quota.

Obama also supports a path to legalization for the estimated 10.8 million undocumented immigrants already in the country (who are not criminals). The Justice Department has brought suit against Arizona, South Carolina, Utah, and Alabama for their restrictive state-based immigration enforcement laws (AP). The government's suit against Arizona's law was taken up by the Supreme Court, which overturned most of the law's provisions in June 2012, but upheld a key provision that allows law enforcement to check the immigration status of those who are lawfully stopped or detained. Obama praised the ruling, saying, "A patchwork of state laws is not a solution to our broken immigration system--it's part of the problem."

In June 2012, the Obama administration announced that the Department of Homeland Security would no longer seek the deportation of most young illegal immigrants. Under the new policy, undocumented immigrants will be deferred from deportation if they were brought to the United States before the age of sixteen and are currently under age of thirty. Moreover, they would also be eligible to apply for two-year work permits that can be renewed indefinitely. These provisions for undocumented youth are scheduled to go into effect in August 2015.

In the second presidential debate, held on October 16, Obama touted his recent executive order that temporarily waives deportation for many undocumented youth who were brought to the United States by their parents, as well as his program of focusing on criminals when it comes to deportations.

Mitt Romney

Republican Candidate, Running Mate Paul Ryan

Romney is a strong proponent of a fence along the entire length of the United States' border with Mexico. In the 2012 campaign, he has spoken out against allowing undocumented immigrants to "cut in line" in the path to legal citizenship, stating in a November 2011 debate that the United States needs to turn off "the magnets of amnesty, in-state tuition for illegal aliens, [and] employers that knowingly hire people that have come here illegally." At a January debate in Jacksonville, Romney said he is "pro-immigrant" but specified that he wants people to come to the United States legally.

In 2004, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney vetoed a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates (MSNBC), and he supports a national E-Verify mandate for employers (TheHill). Romney said in a January 2012 primary debate that if individuals were determined to be in the United States illegally through the E-Verify system, "then they're going to find they can't get work here. And if people don't get work here, they're going to self-deport to a place where they can get work." In a November 2011 debate, he advocated more visas for foreign-born students who specialize in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields (CNN) to encourage entrepreneurship in the United States.

After Obama unveiled his plan to allow undocumented youth to apply for work permits and defer deportation, Romney offered more specifics on his possible immigration policy in a speech in Florida. Romney's own long-term solution would replace President Obama's new policy, by including measures to make legal immigration easier and more transparent. He said his policy would also be aimed at keeping families together, including reallocating green cards and exempting the spouses and minor children of legal immigrants from immigration caps. Romney also supports providing a pathway to citizenship through military service for undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children.

In the second presidential debate on October 16, Romney reversed course on allowing some undocumented youth to stay in the United States, saying "The kids of -- of those that came here illegally, those kids I think should have a pathway to become a -- a permanent resident of the United States. And military service, for instance, is one way they would have that kind of pathway to become a permanent resident."

He also advocated giving green cards to more foreign math and science graduates.

On the Supreme Court's Arizona ruling in late June, Romney said, "Given the failure of the immigration policy in this country, I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to the states, not less. And there are states now under this decision have less authority, less latitude, to enforce immigration laws."

In his convention speech in August, Romney said, "We are a nation of immigrants. We are the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the ones who wanted a better life, the driven ones, the ones who woke up at night hearing that voice telling them that life in that place called America could be better."

In a speech before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in September, Romney said he opposed amnesty "because amnesty will make it harder, not easier, to strengthen our legal immigration system." He also repeated his opposition of Obama's policy to stop deportations of some young undocumented residents.

"Instead of playing immigration politics with these children, I will pursue permanent immigration reform, and I will start by ensuring that those who serve in our military have the opportunity to become legal permanent residents of the country they fought to defend," he said.

In the second presidential debate, Romney reversed course on his immigration views when he supported allowing some undocumented youth to stay in the United States. "The kids of those that came here illegally, those kids I think should have a pathway to become a permanent resident of the United States. And military service, for instance, is one way they would have that kind of pathway to become a permanent resident," he said.

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