Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Backing off the harsh rhetoric of the Republican primaries, Mitt Romney pledged Thursday to address illegal immigration "in a civil but resolute manner." He outlined plans to overhaul the green card system for immigrants with families, and end immigration caps for their spouses and minor children.
In a speech before Hispanic leaders, Romney made only passing mention of his promise to complete a 2,000-mile border fence to help stem illegal immigration. Instead he attacked President Barack Obama's new plan to ease deportation rules for some illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children as little more than a "stop-gap measure."
"As President, I won't settle for a stop-gap measure. I will work with Republicans and Democrats to find a long-term solution," Romney told the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "I will prioritize measures that strengthen legal immigration and make it easier. And I will address the problem of illegal immigration in a civil but resolute manner. We may not always agree, but when I make a promise to you, I will keep it."
Obama will speak to the same group Friday. The speeches come as the Supreme Court prepares to render judgment on a get-tough Arizona law and after Obama announced his new deportation plan.
Romney again refused to say whether he would reverse Obama's policy, promising his "own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president's temporary measure."
The former Massachusetts governor has struggled in recent days to clarify his immigration policy as he pivots from the sharp tone that defined the months-long GOP primary to a general election audience in which Latinos will play a critical role.
During the primaries, Romney and his Republican opponents focused on border security and English as the official language, but the former Massachusetts governor didn't spell out precisely what he would do to address the nation's immigration problem.
On Thursday, as he filled in a few blanks, Romney devoted only one sentence in a 17-minute speech to the border fence and ignored language issues altogether. He did note, however, his father's birth to American parents living in a Mormon colony in Mexico.
"When he was five, they left everything behind, and started over in the United States," Romney said. "I've spoken often about how proud I am of my father."
At least 1 in 6 Americans is of Hispanic descent, according to the Census Bureau, and many lean towards the Democrats. By softening his tone on immigration, Romney is looking to narrow the advantage that Obama has with this pivotal constituency.
The stakes are high not only for states with larger Hispanic populations such as Florida, Nevada and Colorado, but for a growing number of other battlegrounds — Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia, among them — where even a modest shift among Latino voters could be significant.
Romney was vague in some areas — particularly the treatment of immigrant children brought to the country illegally by their parents — but offered new details in others.
His plan to reallocate green cards for immigrants with families and end caps for spouses and minor children would mark a change from the current system, which is something of a first come, first served system. And his pledge to "staple a green card to your diploma" for immigrants who earned advanced degrees in the United States represents a significant change from current law.
It is unclear how many of Romney's promises on immigration reform — such as granting green cards to high-tech graduates — could be accomplished without congressional action.
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