Mitt Romney didn’t just praise Arizona’s draconian immigration law during Wednesday night’s GOP debate. He said it was a model for the country.
“I think you see a model in Arizona,” Romney told CNN debate moderator John King, listing off an employment verification system, a border fence, and increasing the number of border patrol agents as policies he’d pursue as president. “You do that, and just as Arizona is finding out, you can stop illegal immigration.” As my colleague Tim Murphy noted, current top Not Romney contender Rick Santorum didn’t just endorse Arizona-style immigration policy, he went as far as to praise Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom the Justice Department recently accused of violating the civil rights of Arizona residents.
By endorsing the Arizona law, Romney and Santorum are making their clearest and most concise statements yet about the immigration policies they would pursue as president. Romney has been on all sides of the immigration debate in the past, first positioning himself as a Bush-like moderate, then running to John McCain’s right during the 2008 primary. This time around, his campaign has made a point of touting the endorsements anti-immigrant hardliners like Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has helped write Arizona-style laws all over the country, and Pete Wilson, the former governor of California. Wilson supported California’s Prop 187, which prohibited undocumented immigrants in the state from using any public services, was later struck down as unconstitutional, and produced a backlash that is credited with helping Democrats win nearly every statewide election contest since. By tossing out concepts like “self-deportation,” Romney has made his support for harsh anti-illegal immigration laws clear.
Kobach and Wilson, though, aren’t exactly household names today, and “self-deportation” is more of a dogwhistle to immigration restrictionists than a recognizable policy position for most Americans. But Romney and Santorum just said on television that they’d like the entire country to be more like Arizona, where Latinos must carry identification lest they be randomly mistaken for an undocumented immigrant by local authorities now empowered to make random judgments about immigration status based on how people look. Americans may not know Kobach, and they may not know Wilson. They might raise an eyebrow at “self-deportation.” But everyone, opposed or in favor, knows what “Arizona” means in the context of illegal immigration.
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