LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Declaring immigration reform a “moral imperative,” Mitt Romney on Thursday laid out a broad vision for increasing legal immigration both for businesses and for family reunification, but also vowed to step up border enforcement and complete “a high-tech fence” along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Mr. Romney again refused to say whether he would allow President Obama’s recent order halting deportations of young illegal immigrants to remain in place while he and Congress worked on a reform bill.
In a major speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), meeting at Disney World for their annual conference, the Republicans’ presumptive presidential nominee tried to highlight areas of general agreement on immigration — such as expanding legal avenues, fixing long wait times and trying to attract highly skilled immigrants.
But he shied away from broad calls for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Instead, he said, he would try to find ways to discourage illegal immigration.
He urged Hispanic voters to take a critical look at Mr. Obama’s entire record on immigration rather than be swayed by the stopgap deportation decision that the president made last week. Mr. Romney said the move was timed to win votes, not to become serious policy.
“He’s taking your vote for granted. I’ve come here today with a very simple message: You do have an alternative. Your vote should be respected,” Mr. Romney said.
Democrats said they were confident that Hispanic voters would reject Mr. Romney’s entreaty and instead remember the man who during the Republican primary contests promised to veto the Dream Act to legalize illegal immigrant students and young adults, and who has staked out the most pro-enforcement position of any major-party nominee in history.
“What I saw was a Republican presidential candidate that clearly will not break with the hardest-core positions held by some in his anti-immigration base, which then prevents him from moving towards the sensible middle on immigration,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois, who has taken over leadership on immigration after the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Mr. Obama will have a chance to make his own case Friday when he addresses NALEO. Because of his announcement last week, his appearance is widely expected to be a victory lap with a friendly audience.
Still, he remains in some political peril. On Thursday at a breakout policy session at the NALEO conference, a top White House immigration policy aide, Felicia Escobar, was peppered with questions about why the president has set records for deportations during his three years in office.
Ana Sol Gutierrez, a state lawmaker from Maryland, said she had three cases of people just last week who were detained by federal authorities who she said were innocent and who disappeared into the system. She said the hotlines the Obama administration set up to help people in those situations aren’t working.
Immigration is among the thorniest domestic issues in the presidential race.
Mr. Obama in 2008 promised to get Congress to pass a bill legalizing most illegal immigrants, but instead used his political capital on health care reform and the economic stimulus bill.
He has made vague overtures, but has not submitted a plan to Congress. Still, he has taken dramatic action by stepping up deportations but trying to carve out broad categories of rank-and-file illegal immigrants who aren’t subject to removal.
Mr. Romney on Thursday called for a plan that does far more on the legal immigration side, while proposing stricter enforcement and a limited window for legal status.
He proposed expanding legal immigration for children and spouses of current holders of green cards, which he said was critical to keeping families together. He also called for a streamlined temporary-worker program and efforts to keep highly skilled immigrants in the U.S.
In terms of legalization, Mr. Romney said he would support granting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who agree to join the U.S. military — a small part of the Dream Act, which would legalize most illegal immigrant young adults.
But Mr. Romney did not offer any broad plan for legalizing most illegal immigrants. He said only that he would “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,” he told NALEO.
On border security, he promised to complete what he called “a high-tech fence” and that he would complete an exit-verification system to reduce the large percentage of illegal immigrants who arrived legally but stayed past their visas.
Mr. Romney made his speech less than a week after Mr. Obama announced that he would stop deporting illegal immigrants younger than 30 who were brought here as children and who have completed high school or earned a GED.
Early polling shows that move is popular among most voters, though Mr. Romney said it was a stopgap measure done more for election-year politics than because it was good policy.
“After 3½ years of putting every issue from loan guarantees for his donors to ‘cash for clunkers’ before immigration, now the president has been seized by an overwhelming need to do what he could have done on Day One. I think you deserve better,” Mr. Romney said.
He has refused to say whether he would leave the policy in place while working on a broader solution. But he did praise a draft plan mentioned by Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, that would have granted those students some legal status, though not a path to citizenship.
Mr. Rubio, who scrapped his plan after Mr. Obama’s deportation decision last week, is scheduled to address NALEO on Friday just ahead of the president.