Feb. 13, 2007 — -- Illegal immigration foes are joining the presidential campaign of former Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Mass., despite a Boston Globe report that a landscaping firm he used allegedly employed illegal workers.
"A person of good will can make an inadvertent mistake," Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., told ABC News. "I certainly would not hold that against him."
The Boston Globe reported from Guatemala on Dec. 1 that for a decade, Romney allegedly used a landscaping company, Community Lawn Service Company with a Heart, that "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 immigrations status of the 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 DNC's missive to reporters, "some of those workers maintain his own yard, cutting grass, pruning shrubs, and mulching trees."
But two-and-on-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. Through a successful meeting, 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.
The former Massachusetts governor supports increasing the number of high-skilled immigrants admitted into the United States. But the core of his appeal to conservatives is his vow to secure U.S. borders.
"I believe that homeland security begins with securing our borders," Romney said Tuesday while formally declaring his presidential bid in Dearborn, Mich.
In recent days, he has stepped up his hard-liner appeal 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, Md., after courting a group of House conservatives. "I think it's an important and valid topic." Romney said in Baltimore that before announcing any position on birthright citizenship, he would want to know whether ending the practice could be done through statute or whether it would require a change to the U.S. Constititution.
At present, all babies born in the United States -- except those born to enemy aliens in wartime or the children of foreign diplomats -- enjoy American citizenship under the Supreme Court's long-standing interpretation of the 14th Amendment. The amendment provides: "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."
While most constitutional scholars think ending birthright citizenship would require a constitutional amendment, the opposite viewpoint is some credibility in conservative legal circles. Pepperdine Law professor Douglas Kmiec told ABC News that 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," said Kmiec, "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 as a constitutional legal counsel to former Presidents Reagan and Bush, 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. The Georgia Republicans says, however, that he would like to see Congress take that step regardless of whether it required a constitutional amendment, 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.
When it comes to McCain's efforts to offer a path to earned citizenship for the 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States, Romney has worked to brand his chief rival as a proponent of "amnesty."
Speaking of McCain, Romney recently told Nightline, "His immigration, bill, I think, is an amnesty-style program that I don't support."
By flirting with an end to birthright citizenship and by portraying earned legalization as "amnesty," Romney is departing not only from the course set by McCain but also from that of President Bush who, since his days as governor of Texas, has worked to moderate the GOP's image on immigration and to court Hispanic voters.
In a March 26 memo to members of the Republican National Committee, former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd maintained that voters "don't consider granting legal status to those already here amnesty." Dowd also urged RNC members to pursue a "comprehensive" solution to immigration with an eye on the country's burgeoning Hispanic population.
Romney's hardline on immigration isn't likely to attract Hispanic voters, but it has struck a cord 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."
ABC News' Matthew Zavala contributed to this report.