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Romney's Untypical Views on Immigration

Mitt Romney might yet become the first Hispanic president of the United States. But first, the likely 2012 presidential candidate is doing something really important  — going to bat for legal immigrants.

First things first. You heard right. I said Romney could become the first Hispanic president. The former Massachusetts governor compares to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who, like Romney, ran unsuccessfully for president in 2008. Each had one Mexican-born parent — Richardson’s mother and Romney’s father.

In fact, both Mitt’s father — George Romney — and his grandfather — Gaskell Romney — were born in Mexico. His great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney, fled the United States and crossed the southern border in 1884 to escape religious persecution. The result was the Mormon enclave of Colonia Juarez in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, which still exists to this day.

That not only makes Mitt Romney Hispanic, it also makes it all the more curious that “El Mitt” would — as part of his extreme right-wing makeover in the 2008 election — try to scare up votes with his best impersonation of Tom Tancredo, the former Colorado congressman who went nuts at the idea of having to “press 1 for English.” That sheet never seemed to fit.

Now we know why. Romney obviously has a soft spot for illegal immigrants, given that his great-grandfather was one. At least, I haven’t seen a copy of an engraved invitation from Mexican President Manuel Gonzalez — who was in power in 1884 — to Miles Park Romney, asking him to migrate south and bring with him all the Mormons he could find.

Be that as it may, unlike many Republicans —  including Tancredo, who calls for a moratorium on all immigration because he fears the demographic changes that foreigners bring with them — Romney does seem to have a legitimate soft spot for legal immigrants. It probably comes from being part of a family that knows firsthand what it’s like to have to leave your country behind and gamble on the promise of brighter days down the road.

During a recent radio interview on the Hugh Hewitt Show, Romney claimed that U.S. immigration policy isn’t just broken — it’s also backward. The United States has more than its share of illegal immigrants doing low-skilled work, he said. And yet, he insisted, we make it difficult for people who come to the United States legally to study or work to remain here after their visa expires and become productive, wage-earning, tax-paying members of society.

Romney is right. People from around the world come to study in U.S. universities on temporary visas. They often excel in class and earn their degrees with ease. But after graduation, many of them have to go back to their home countries instead of settling in the United States. Just when these people enter their high-productivity years — when they generate income, consume goods, and pay taxes — we can’t wait to send them home. It doesn’t make any sense.

Romney wants to encourage more legal immigration, with a special emphasis on recruiting and retaining high-skilled immigrants. He told Hewitt that, if he had his way, we would literally staple a green card to the diploma of every foreign student who graduates from a university in the United States.

What a great idea. This would help keep us competitive internationally, and preserve one of the most valuable of American traditions — that of welcoming those immigrants who play by the rules to get here. It would also help remind those of us who are lucky enough to be U.S.-born that there are no guarantees in life, and no entitlements. If you want something, you compete for it — and not just with your countrymen, but also with anyone who has the skills and the gumption to come here and try to take it.

Aren’t these exactly the kind of ambitious and optimistic people we should be trying to attract to this country? At the very least, Congress can make it easier for legal immigrants to become U.S. citizens. CEOs of high-tech companies have pleaded with lawmakers to increase the allotment of H-1B visas for high-skilled workers. Currently, only about 65,000 H-1B visas are granted each year — a shamefully low number for a country of 300 million people.

What are we afraid of? The answer can’t be legal immigrants. They’re our country’s most valuable import. To his credit, Mitt Romney understands that. Too bad not all Republicans do.