BETTENDORF, Iowa, Aug. 8, 2007 — -- 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.'"
Romney first leveled the "sanctuary city" charge last week, trying to contrast Giuliani's policy as mayor with his own as governor, saying he'd denied driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
Monday in Clear Lake, Giuliani protested, saying, "Frankly, that designation would not apply to New York City. What you got to look at in fairness to is the overall results -- and no city in terms of crime, safety, dealing with illegality of all different kinds has done a better job than New York City."
Earlier this year, Giuliani came out against the immigration reform compromise that failed in the Senate, saying he opposed "amnesty." He emphasizes increasing the number of border guards, building a high-tech fence and a national tamperproof ID card for immigrants.
But as he tries to appeal to conservative voters, Giuliani is often competing with his own past views.
Giuliani has long faulted the federal government for not doing enough to secure the borders. But liberal immigrants' rights groups generally give him high marks during his tenure for sensitivity to their issues.
In 1996, Giuliani compared "the anti-immigration issue that's now sweeping the country" to "the Chinese Exclusionary Act, or the Know-Nothing movement -- these were movements that encouraged Americans to fear foreigners, to fear something that is different and to stop immigration."
That same year he sued the federal government for new provisions in federal immigration laws that would encourage government employees to turn in illegal immigrants seeking benefits from the city.
He said educating the children of illegal immigrants made sense.
"The reality is that they are here, and they're going to remain here. The choice becomes for a city what do you do? Allow them to stay on the streets or allow them to be educated? The preferred choice from the point of view of New York City is to be educated," Giuliani claimed.
For his part, Romney also seems to have had a much more lenient view of illegal immigrants than his current rhetoric would suggest. And while Giuliani may be placing a different emphasis on his immigration views, Romney seems to have changed his in some cases.
For 10 years, Romney used the services of a landscaping company for his Belmont, Mass., estate that hired illegal workers from Guatemala, workers who told the Boston Globe that Romney never inquired about their legal status.
While Romney was governor, the commonwealth of Massachusetts became one of the six states with the largest growth in unauthorized migrant population, from 2002 to 2004, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, with somewhere between 200,000-250,000 new illegal immigrants. Romney was governor from January 2003 until 2007.
Romney in the past voiced support for immigration reform bills far more liberal than the 2007 bill.
In 2005, he called immigration reform efforts by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and President Bush that provided a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants "reasonable proposals" that were "very different than amnesty. … It's saying you could work your way into becoming a legal resident of the country by working here without taking benefits and then applying and then paying a fine."
In 2006, Romney said "those that are here paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process toward application for citizenship, as they would from their home country."
McCain's 2007 efforts at an immigration reform compromise are seen as one of the main reasons for his recent woes in the polls.
Jan Simmonds and Matt Stuart contributed to this report.