Foes of illegal immigration are joining the presidential campaign of former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, despite a Boston Globe report that he hired a landscaping firm that allegedly employed illegal workers.
"A person of goodwill can make an inadvertent mistake," Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., told ABC News. "I certainly would not hold that against him."
On Dec. 1, the Boston Globe reported that for a decade, Romney used the landscaping company Community Lawn Service Company with a Heart, which allegedly "relies heavily on illegal workers" to maintain the lawn at his pink colonial home in Belmont, Mass.
Romney responded to the story by telling the Globe through a spokesman that he knows nothing about the immigration status of the landscaping workers employed by the landscaping firm, adding that his dealings were with the firm's head, Ricardo Saenz, a legal immigrant from Colombia.
The Democratic National Committee seized on the Globe report last year to paint Romney as a hypocrite.
"Even as Romney travels the country, vowing to curb the flood of low-skilled illegal immigrants into the United States," read the D.N.C.'s missive to reporters, "some of those workers maintain his own yard, cutting grass, pruning shrubs and mulching trees."
But two-and-a-half months after the story appeared, it does not appear to have slowed Romney from making inroads in the House GOP conference where anti-immigration passions run high.
At present, Romney counts 23 House Republicans in his camp-- eight more House Republicans than Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and 18 more than former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Romney has also won the silence of Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., the anti-illegal immigrant firebrand who is pursuing a long-shot presidential campaign.
Romney has appealed to illegal immigration foes by vowing to implement a tamper-proof employment verification system while securing U.S. borders and increasing the number of high-skilled immigrants admitted into the United States.
In recent days, he has stepped up his appeal to anti-illegal immigration hard-liners by indicating that he is open to ending the long-standing practice of granting citizenship to children born in the United States to illegal immigrants.
"It's something which I'm looking at," Romney recently told reporters in Baltimore after courting a group of House conservatives. "I think it's an important and valid topic."
Romney has not committed himself to announcing a position on birthright citizenship. He has said, however, that if he does, he wants to know whether ending birthright citizenship could be done through statute or whether it would require a change to the Constitution. He has also said that he wants to know what the consequences would be for the country.
Excepting the cases of children born in the United States to enemy aliens in wartime and children of foreign diplomats, all babies born in the United States have American citizenship under the Supreme Court's current interpretation of the 14th Amendment. The amendment says: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."
One leading conservative scholar thinks there is a "better than plausible argument" that Congress has authority under Sec. 5 of the 14th Amendment to end birthright citizenship through legislation.
"It is my study of the matter," professor Douglas Kmiec of Pepperdine University School of Law told ABC News, "that those who wrote the 14th Amendment intended those words ["the jurisdiction thereof"] to mean not owing allegiance to anybody else -- that is, subject to the complete jurisdiction of the United States, not simply to the laws of the United States or subject to the jurisdiction of the court."
Kmiec, who served former Presidents Ronald Regan and George H.W. Bush as constitutional legal counsel, said that someone who enters the U.S. illegally, and has not renounced the citizenship of the country from which he or she has emigrated, is not subject to the complete jurisdiction of the United States.
Gingrey shares Kmiec's assessment that Congress likely has the power to end birthright citizenship through legislation. But he would like to see Congress take that step regardless of whether it required a constitutional amendment or not, and he is encouraged by Romney's recent comments.
I would be "pleased to know that he would stand strong against that and eliminate birthright citizenship," said Gingrey.
To the Right of the President
When it comes to dealing with the roughly 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States, Romney's rhetoric has departed not only from McCain but also from that of President Bush and his circle of advisers.
In a March 26 memo to members of the Republican National Committee, former Bush strategist Matthew Dodd maintained that voters "don't consider granting legal status to those already here [on] amnesty." Dowd urged R.N.C. members to pursue a "comprehensive" solution to immigration with an eye on the country's burgeoning Hispanic population. But Romney has still used the "amnesty" label to tar his chief rival for the GOP's 2008 presidential nomination.
Speaking of McCain, Romney recently told "Nightline," "his immigration bill, I think, is an amnesty-style program that I don't support."
McCain rejects the "amnesty" label.
"Amnesty is forgiveness," McCain told ABC News' "Good Morning America" in the spring of 2006. "This is payment of a fine. This is admission of guilt. . . This is earned citizenship, that's what it is."
But by branding McCain's proposal to offer them a path to citizenship as "amnesty," as he regularly does, Romney has struck a chord with some of his backers in the House.
"He is strong on border security, and he is against amnesty," Gingrey told ABC News, "and that is certainly part of the reason why I am so enthusiastic in my support for Gov. Romney."