Romney Rations Immigration Words

Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Protesters against Arizona's immigration law outside of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Updated at 3:45 pm and 4:35 pm EDT

His campaign’s chartered airplane full of reporters eager for any hint of response to the Supreme Court’s marquee rulings this week, Mitt Romney initially took a pass today on discussing the decision to strike down much of Arizona’s illegal immigration law.

The presumed Republican nominee, who has made his promise to repeal President Barack  Obama’s health care law a staple of his campaign, has been preparing for weeks to issue his public reaction to the high court’s anticipated ruling — now expected June 28 — on the constitutionality of that measure. But when it came to Arizona’s immigration law, Romney at first offered only a written statement distributed by e-mail, and nothing more.

Romney’s reluctance to discuss the immigration ruling and the law that led to it reflects the politically charged nature of the issue, and the difficult box in which he finds himself on the issue.

(Updates:  “Given the failure of the immigration policy in this country, I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give states more latitude, not less,” Romney told about 200 donors at the Scottsdale Plaza Resort in Arizona later today.

President Barack Obama left the talking to a paper handout. A little more than two hours after the Supreme Court ruling, the White House issued a statement saying that, while he was “pleased” with the decision to strike down most of the law, the remaining part requiring local Arizona police to check the immigration status of people they suspect are in the country illegaly is a cause for concern.

“We must ensure that Arizona law enforcement officials do not enforce this law in a manner that undermines the civil rights of Americans,” Obama said in the statement.

As he made his way to Marine One for a two-day visit to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Georgia and Florida the president didn’t answer questions on the immigration ruling or the upcoming decision on the fate of the health care law, his signature legislative achievement. In remarks in Portsmouth, New Hampshire today the president didn’t veer off his usual campaign speech staying mum on the big news of the day and the anticipated health care ruling.)

Romney’s written statement left open the question of whether Romney agreed with the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate criminal restrictions that would have barred those in the U.S. illegally from seeking work or being in Arizona without proper documentation.

Romney’s statement said only that the ruling “underscores the need for a president who will lead on this critical issue and work in a bipartisan fashion to pursue a national immigration strategy.”

The former Massachusetts governor said: “I believe that each state has the duty — and the right — to secure our borders and preserve the rule of law, particularly when the federal government has failed to meet its responsibilities.”

The Supreme Court majority evidently felt differently.

“Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration while that process continues, but the state may not pursue policies that undermine federal law,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.

Requests by the press corps traveling with Romney for an in-person question-and-answer session were declined, even on a day on which Romney is traveling to ground zero in the case for a Phoenix, Arizona fundraiser. In a seven-minute session with reporters after Romney’s airplane arrived there, his traveling press secretary could offer nothing to clarify his boss’s position either on the Arizona law or the Supreme Court ruling that struck down most of it.

“The governor believes the states have the rights to craft their own immigration laws, especially when the federal government has failed to do so,” spokesman Rick Gorka told reporters. In response to further questions about Romney’s position on the law and today’s decision, he said: “The governor supports the rights of states. That’s all we’re going to say on this issue.”

A few minutes later, reacting to still more queries about Romney’s position on the statute, Gorka said: “I’ll say it again and again and again for you. The governor understands that states have their own right to craft policies to secure their own borders and to address illegal immigration.”

After a Republican primary spent emphasizing his opposition to any measure allowing illegal immigrants in the United States a pathway to legal status — steps he derided as “amnesty” — Romney is now seeking to moderate his tone as he works to cut into Obama’s lead among Hispanic voters, a growing voting population.

He did so in a June 21 speech to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, in which he criticized the president for failing to deliver a promised comprehensive immigration overhaul, yet offered few specifics on what a President Romney’s position would be.

It’s all in keeping with Romney’s overall campaign strategy of providing few details about his policy proposals that could allow Obama to frame the election as a choice between two courses, the better to define the contest as a referendum on the president’s actions.

 Kate Andersen Brower contributed to this report.

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