Debate Roughhousing Aside, is Romney Serious about Illegals?

The Perry-Romney debate dispute over undocumented workers fails to get at the substance of the issue.

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Former Gov. Mitt Romney has made news recently because of his demeanor at the most recent of the slew of GOP primary debates. The normally unflappable (in public, anyway) Romney lost it a little bit when foe Gov. Rick Perry accused the former Massachusetts governor of using illegal immigrants to tend his lawn.

Romney initially laughed—bad move, especially considering how his temper changed within seconds. It wasn't funny; Romney knew it wasn't a joke, and forcing a laugh to indicate how crazy the accusation was merely made Romney look phony and defensive. Then, when Romney tried to counter the charge, Perry continued to talk, aggravating Romney. Teaxs Gov. Perry jabbed a finger in the air; Romney put a hand on Perry's shoulder (another bad move—stay out of your opponent's space). Then Romney turned to the teacher to settle the schoolyard dispute, appealing to host Anderson Cooper to make Perry shut up.

This was not a proud display by either governor. Spirited debate is good, but behaving like middleschoolers is not. Romney could have won the joust if he had kept his cool a bit more. And worse, the focus on the bickering between the two governors conceals the more important matter of the substance of the allegation.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]

The Boston Globe reported in 2006 that Romney indeed employed a lawn-care company that itself employed illegal immigrants. The workers said the company owners knew, a claim the company denied. In 2007, Romney was still employing the company, the Globe reported. The former governor said he had gone to company management in 2006 to insist they employ only people here legally. When the second story appeared, Romney fired the landscaping company.

That chronology certainly raises enough questions to make Perry's accusation worth addressing. But Romney's response to Perry raises an even more troubling issue—whether how the situation looked was more important than the legal status of the employees itself.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

The exchange went as such:

PERRY: You stood here in front of the American people and did not tell the truth that you had illegals working on your property. And the newspaper came to you and brought it to your attention, and you still, a year later, had those individuals working for you.

ROMNEY: We hired a lawn company to mow our lawn, and they had illegal immigrants that were working there. And when that was pointed out to us, we let them go...So we went to the company and we said, 'Look, you can't have any illegals working on our property. I'm running for office, for Pete's sake, I can't have illegals [emphasis added]. It turns out that once questioned, they hired someone who had falsified their documents, had documents, and therefore we fired them.

What is Romney suggesting—that none of this would matter if he didn't have to defend it on the campaign trail? If Romney is serious about clamping down on undocumented workers, he ought to get at the actual substance of the issue, whether it's campaign season or not.

And don't touch the other candidates.

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