In one of the strongest conflicts yet between Republican presidential front-runners, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney attacked rival Rudy Giuliani Wednesday, implying that Giuliani supported illegal immigration when he was mayor of New York.
"If you look at lists compiled on Web sites of sanctuary cities, New York is at the top of the list when Mayor Giuliani was mayor," Romney said at the Abbey Hotel here. "He instructed city workers not to provide information to the federal government that would allow them to enforce the law. New York City was the poster child for sanctuary cities in the country."
The Giuliani campaign issued a statement rejecting the charge. Campaign communications director Katie Levinson said, "I am not even sure we should weigh in on this, given Mitt Romney may change his mind later today about it. Mitt Romney is as wrong about Mayor Giuliani's position on illegal immigration as he was when he last mischaracterized the mayor's record and later had to apologize. New York is the safest large city in America since Mayor Giuliani turned it around -- it is not a haven for illegality of any kind. The mayor's record speaks for itself."
New York became a sanctuary city, where illegal immigrants enjoy some measure of protection, through an executive order signed by Mayor Ed Koch in 1989, five years before Giuliani became mayor in January 1994.
But if Giuliani inherited the policy, he reissued it and seemed to embrace it.
At a June 1994 press conference, Giuliani decried anti-illegal immigration policies as unfair and hostile.
"Some of the hardest-working and most productive people in this city are undocumented aliens," Giuliani said at the time. "If you come here and you work hard and you happen to be in an undocumented status, you're one of the people who we want in this city. You're somebody that we want to protect, and we want you to get out from under what is often a life of being like a fugitive, which is really unfair."
At a speech in Minneapolis in 1996, Giuliani defended Koch's executive order, that, in his words "protects undocumented immigrants in New York City from being reported to the INS while they are using city services that are critical for their health and safety, and for the health and safety of the entire city."
"There are times when undocumented immigrants must have a substantial degree of protection," Giuliani said.
Giuliani leads in national polls of the Republican candidates, but Romney is the current front-runner in Iowa polls of likely Republican caucus-goers, and is favored to win this weekend's straw poll in Ames.
Cracking down on illegal immigration is a compelling issue for conservative Republicans.
"You have to follow the law, and honor and respect the law," Romney said Wednesday. "And if you don't do that and create the perception that we welcome people coming into our cities or communities that are here illegally … you attract people into this country to come illegally. That's why we went from 3 million illegal aliens to 12 million illegal aliens."
Romney described Giuliani as having an "open door policy that said, 'Come on in, we want you if you're undocumented and this will be a zone of protection. You don't have to worry about city officials providing information to the federal government.'"