In baseball parlance, Mitt Romney may have hit a single at the convention of Latino elected officials today in Orlando, Fl., but many Iowans were hoping for a home run.

He scored with a promise to modify immigration law to help the families of undocumented immigrants stay together.

But he fouled out by not clearly stating whether he would retain or rescind President Barack Obama’s new deferred deportation policy immediately if he is elected president.

In a speech to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials this afternoon, Romney said he would approach immigration reform in a “civil, resolute manner,” and, for the first time, he promised to “exempt” spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents, who are green card holders, from immigration limits. Currently, that limit is 87,934 people annually

“Our immigration system should help promote strong families, not keep them apart, Romney said. “As president I’d reallocate green cards for those seeking to keep families under one roof.”

Today’s much-anticipated speech marked the first time Romney has expanded on a policy that, heretofore, was focused on his promise to veto the DREAM Act of 2010, a stalled bill that would provide young, undocumented immigrants a path to legal status.

It comes in the wake of Obama’s surprise announcement last week to defer deportation of young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their parents when they were 16 or younger. Obama’s proposal drew overwhelming popular support especially among Latinos and independents.

Romney, in his speech in Florida, cast his new immigration strategy as a plan to produce a long-term policy to replace Obama’s “stopgap” measure.

Nevertheless, he still was short on details, and many expressed skepticism.

“It definitely sounds very contradictory to what he has said in the past, which was in favor of self deportation through attrition,” said Sandra Sanchez, Immigrant Voice program director for the American Friends Service Committee. “I am very surprised by his statements.”

Sanchez said, “It will be very hard to believe him based on his previous positions and the hardcore line most Republicans have had in last few years in regards to any permanent solution for the broken immigration system.”

However, Romney’s message Thursday may have had an impact on some Latinos. Consider Rey Lopez, 24, who came to the U.S. from Oaxaca, Mexico, when he was three.

Before Romney’s speech, Lopez spoke optimistically about Obama’s plan to defer deportation for certain undocumented residents.

“I see opportunity and better life from this policy,” he said in an interview with IowaWatch on Wednesday.

But this afternoon, after Romney’s speech, Lopez was more ambivalent.

“I’ll vote for whoever is willing to help and actually do what they’re saying, because actions speak better than words.”

Romney’s comments about keeping immigrant families together, however, may resonate with concerns that Lopez says his community harbors.

The major issues for the Latino community are broken families or the fear of “getting taken away.”

He thinks popular opinion often unfairly stereotypes Latinos.

“The thing that hurts the most is criminal people who make a bad name for us. People think all Latinos are going to be the same way,” he said.

Manuel Galvez

In another pair of before-and-after interviews, Manuel Galvez, editor of El Trueque in Iowa City, expressed objections to both candidates. But his comments after Romney’s Orlando appearance today suggests he now has more qualms with the former Massachusetts governor.

On Wednesday, Galvez questioned whether Obama’s deferred deportation policy would leave immigrants facing an uncertain fate after two years and said he felt both parties “are using Latinos for the same thing” – to win votes.

Today, Galvez listed numerous questions about the Republican candidate’s plan.

How can Romney take such a huge step without first passing universal immigration reform through Congress, he asked.

“Is he going to break the law?” Galvez said.

Lori Chesser

Lori Chesser, an immigration lawyer in Des Moines, Iowa, pointed out that Obama’s so-called executive order is technically referred to as a “deferred action,” where certain undocumented immigrants who would have been deported are granted a two-year renewable deportation deferral and a work permit. If Obama wins re-election, the executive branch of government could renew the action.

But if Romney wins, he could shut down the deferral policy immediately.

“It’s like saying, we know you’re deportable, but we’re not going to do it,” Chesser said. “It’s just plugging the hole, stopping the bleeding, but not fixing anything.”

Romney has been unclear as to whether he would actually repeal Obama’s action right when he would take office if elected.

“Some people have asked if I will let stand the president’s executive order,” Romney told the Latino officers’ gathering. “The answer is that I will put in place my own long term solution that will replace and supersede president’s temporary measure,” he said.

Right now, there is a two-year waiting list for the number of people who can apply for permanent residence. Romney proposed eliminating that wait for incoming spouses and children of permanent residents, who are now in a waiting line that is backed up to February 2010. Chesser wonders what will happen to the 11 million undocumented people who are already in the country.

Nevertheless, she said Romney broke some new ground within the Republican Party.

“It’s a huge departure for a Republican candidate,” she said. “He’s making a broader statement than most Republican candidates are making now. But it still is an inadequate response to the problems with immigration.”

The annual limit for legal immigrants to enter the U.S. is 675,000.  Obama’s action affects about 800,000 undocumented immigrants who would otherwise be subject to deportation.

Immigrants in Iowa

Chesser said that immigration is focused too much on seasonal workers who obtain temporary work visas.

“We really need people in non-seasonal jobs. Look around in Iowa. It’s not that we can’t harvest our corn and soybeans, it’s that we can’t take care of our cows, pigs and chickens. There’s no work visa to do that,” Chesser said.

In his speech, Romney emphasized that Latinos are 30 percent more likely to start their own business, but the Latino unemployment rate is 11 percent.

Professor Jan Flora

“I think it’s true that Latino businesses are growing more rapidly than any other group, but it’s also true that they have a higher failure rate,” said Professor Jan Flora, a professor of sociology at Iowa State University who studies entrepreneurship among Latino businesses in Iowa. “I think there should be a path to citizenship for those who start a business.”

Galvez and Sanchez expect to hear Obama talk about the deferred action tomorrow when he speaks at the conference at 12 p.m.

“It [deferred action] will have an extremely positive impact in short term, but we see it as a mild remedy to a significant problem. We welcome it, but certainly it doesn’t measure up to what the DREAM Act is,” Sanchez said.

If Obama wins, Galvez says he expects real compromise and that Obama would propose immigration reform

“I can expect a strong position from him,” he said. “He needs to be strong and very clear and that we are going to work together.”

Romney’s immigration proposals in his speech today:

  • “As president I’d reallocate green cards for those seeking to keep families under one roof;”
  • “I will exempt from caps the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents;”
  • “I’d staple a green card to the degree of someone who gets an advanced degree in America;”
  • “I’d create a path to legal status for anyone willing to defend our nation through military service;”
  • “Put in place more field border patrol agents”
  • “Complete a high tech fence;”
  • “Exit verification system;” and
  • “Employment verification system.”

Obama’s deferred deportation action.

People may apply for deferred deportation if they:

  • Came to the U.S. under the age of 16;
  • Are under age 31;
  • Have resided in the U.S. for five consecutive years as of June 15, 2012;
  • Are currently in school, have graduated from high school, have obtained a GED or have been honorably discharged from the armed forces;
  • Have not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor or more than three misdemeanors; and
  • Do not pose a threat to national security or public safety.

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