ORLANDO — In the presidential primary, Mitt Romney seized a hard line on immigration, but Thursday before an influential group of Hispanics, the Republican nominee made a careful turn toward the middle.
He called for permanent residency for highly skilled college graduates and members of the military and protections for families snared in the vortex of current law, but he also called for a "high-tech" fence to enhance border security.
"We can find common ground here, and we must," Romney said, striving to attract support from a crucial and growing voting force. But Romney, who called attention to President Barack Obama's failed promise to tackle comprehensive immigration reform, left unclear how he would respond to Obama's surprise announcement last week that he will block the deportation of young illegal immigrants and grant them work permits.
"Some people have asked if I will let stand the president's (order)," Romney said. "The answer is that I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president's temporary measure. As president, I won't settle for stop-gap measures."
Nor did Romney address the most vexing immigration problem: What to do with the more than 11 million undocumented residents already living in the United States.
Previously he has said he would veto the Dream Act providing a path to citizenship to some illegal immigrants who arrived in the country as minors. He has advocated the undocumented immigrants should "self-deport."
The balance reflects the difficulty of the immigration issue as Romney tries to broaden his appeal without alienating conservatives. Romney has tried to largely avoid the issue since the primary, focusing exclusively on the economy. Appearing here Thursday, a day before Obama, Romney was under pressure to say something, and he offered up a lengthy policy outline, even if it lacked specifics.
It's unlikely Romney changed many minds among the heavily Democratic National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, which greeted him with tepid applause (and a few boos when he mentioned repealing the health care law).
"You've got to look at the last year. Would he be saying these same things in Iowa to a bunch of white faces? No, he wouldn't,'' said state Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando. "You can't go from a year's worth of anti-immigration bashing to an about-face here and expect everybody to believe you."
Some of Romney's proposals were well received — chiefly those aimed at immigrant families — and critics conceded his focus on improving the economy could resonate among a population that faces 11 percent unemployment versus the 8.2 percent unemployment among overall workers.
His proposal calls for permanent residency for highly skilled college graduates and members of the military; a streamlined work visa system; giving legal permanent residents the same priority as citizens when applying to bring husbands, wives and minor children to the United States; and re-allocating green cards to family of citizens and legal permanent residents.
Those are mostly noncontroversial, and Romney while campaigning in Florida's primary had said he could support accommodating members of the military. He stopped short of embracing plans to create a path to citizenship for high-achieving high school graduates — part of the stalled Dream Act.
Romney was also silent on a plan U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., had been working on to create legal status for young illegal immigrants, though not a new path to citizenship like the Dream Act. Obama's announcement pre-empted Rubio, who was still trying to build Republican support and had not drafted the legislation, and put Republicans in a box.
Some criticized Obama for sidestepping Congress while others blasted it as "amnesty." Romney on Thursday steered clear of the substance of the policy.
"We owe it to ourselves as Americans to ensure that our country remains the land of opportunity, both for those who were born here and for those who share our values, respect our laws, and want to come to our shores," Romney said, concluding his speech with a story about his father who rose from humble beginnings.
Reaction was mixed.
"He has some very good proposals. They were thought out. I wish he'd given us more on the 11 million undocumented people already here, which is the trickiest and biggest problem," said Ana Navarro, a former adviser to 2008 Republican nominee John McCain.
"His solution to the 11 million undocumented people in America is to make life so miserable for Latinos that they self-deport," scoffed Paul Lopez, a Democratic city council member from Denver, who said Romney did little to ease people's concerns about him.
Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, echoed those sentiments: "The bigger story is what he didn't say. He missed an opportunity to lean more into that issue here."
But she credited Romney for talking of the importance of protecting families with immigration policy and said his economic message will resonate with the hard-hit Hispanic community.
"A lot of times we're seen as a one-issue demographic and we're not," said Florida state Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami. "Education, economic opportunity, jobs is something we care very deeply enough. He addressed that. He really made it clear that there is an alternative."