"First of all, this is a nation of immigrants," Romney said. "My dad was born in Mexico of American parents."
Romney's approach in the debate supports the assessment that historians, political analysts and swing-state voters shared with The Huffington Post: In the final weeks before the election, when and how Romney talks about immigration matters greatly in determining the outcome.
Romney needs to claim about 30 percent of the Latino vote to take the White House. A growing share of those voters rank immigration among their top political priorities, according to a series of Latino Decisions tracking polls. Now, as Romney moves toward the center on issues as divergent as tax policy and abortion, his consistently conservative, "anti-amnesty" position on immigration is drawing the attention of people on both sides of the border, who say that political expediency and the way that Romney portrays his own family's immigrant history are obstructing a public move toward more a moderate stance.
The Romney campaign declined to comment.
Romney's Tuesday night wind-up was supposed to soften the blow that comes with the rest of his immigration ideas, said Chad Snow, an Arizona lawyer who, like Romney, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Saying my dad was born in Mexico? That's the new version of, 'Oh I have a lot of black friends,'" said Snow, who helped spearhead the effort to unseat Russell Pearce, an Arizona Mormon, former State Senate leader and a driving force behind Arizona's strict immigration law, SB 1070.
The state law in effect creates the kind of conditions which Romney has suggested -- and reiterated Tuesday -- might prompt undocumented immigrants to, "make their own choice," and self-deport. Pearce's position on immigration was untenable, Snow said, but Romney's is puzzling. The Mormon church's position on the matter encourages its members to treat undocumented immigrants with kindness and concern.
Still, Snow plans to vote for Romney. The reason, he said: pure financial self-interest. And, he's certain a more moderate Romney will emerge after the election.
"If you looked at Mitt Romney he is a guy that you would think would be very moderate," Snow said. "He's Mormon and I know he's a good Mormon. He's a businessman. The business interests here in Arizona hated Russell Pearce and his extremism. ... Yet, Romney has taken this very strident position. I don't know what other way to describe it. I think he's faking it."
Others believe Romney may well be committed to policies that encourage a large number of the nation's undocumented population -- about 60 percent of whom hail from Mexico -- to self-deport.
A close look at Romney's debate-night disclaimer and the way that he described his family's move to Mexico in his 2004 book, Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership and the Olympic Games, show a man who thinks of 21st century immigrants seeking safety or economic refuge in the United States as altogether different than the members of the Romney family that moved to Mexico in 1885, said Jeff Biggers, a historian who has researched the Romney family. (Biggers has blogged about his findings for The Huffington Post.)
After reviewing public records and information in an Arizona Mormon archive, Biggers said he found that Romney's family fled the United States due to anti-polygamy laws and a perjury charge that Romney's great-grandfather faced in a land matter. In The Turnaround, Romney described things differently.
Miles [Romney] Junior was asked to move again, this time to build a settlement in St. Johns, Arizona. To every request, Romneys were obedient. And leaving behind all that they had worked to establish, they yet again pitched themselves against the arid terrain, the cactus, the alkali, quicksand, and rattlesnakes. They built schools and libraries … He dug irrigation ditches and plowed up the desert soil.
Eventually Miles was called upon to settle in northern Mexico, where his son, my grandfather Gaskell, would wed and my father George would be born.
"Listen, they ran off essentially as outlaws," said Biggers, author of State Out of the Union, a book about extremism and countervailing forces in Arizona. "No one is advocating that we hold [Mitt] Romney accountable for that. But he has airbrushed history in just such a way that his immigrant family and the immigrant families he wants to self-deport have nothing in common, no shared goals, risk-taking or fears."
Historical accuracy and intellectual honesty, even about one's own family, matters, Biggers said, noting that during the debate, Romney, the son of a refugee and great-grandson of a man avoiding prosecution, used the word "illegals" more than 10 times in 2 minutes.
Mexico has a long history of welcoming refugees fleeing political or religious persecution in their home countries, a Mexican government official said on condition of anonymity because of restrictions barring foreign officials from getting involved in U.S. politics.
Mexico gave refuge to Leon Trotsky in the 1930s and 1940s, Spanish dissidents fleeing Franco's dictatorship in the 1940s and more recently those escaping political persecution in Uruguay, Argentina and other countries. Mormons fleeing political persecution were welcomed in the late 1800s.
"For the average Mexican it sounds very hypocritical to have the background that he has and then take the positions that he has," the official said. "One would think that the country that gave refuge to my family for whatever reason would always be a dear country and that its people would be seen the same way."
What Tony Yapias found most troubling Tuesday and throughout the campaign, he said, was Romney's attempt to sidestep the question of what his brand of immigration reform will mean for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. Yapias serves as director of an immigration advocacy group, Proyecto Latino de Utah. He is also a Mormon.
"He keeps leaving this question and making these references to self-deportation," Yapias said."It's as if he doesn't realize that most undocumented people's lives and their relationship with this country is complex."
Large numbers of undocumented immigrants live in mixed-status families where some members are citizens, others legal immigrants and others still here without legal authorization, Yapias described. Many own businesses and homes or hail from counties where it would not be safe for them to return.
"I'm tired as it is of hearing this simplistic stuff about immigrants taking benefits and doing nothing but bad in this country," said Yapais, who describes himself as an independent who is planning to vote for Obama. "That is really contrary to the truth and the LDS position. But, when he tacks on, 'My father was born in Mexico,' it's like, come on. Who do you think you are fooling?"