Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney doubled down on Monday on his opposition to the DREAM Act, a bill that would aid undocumented young people and that is heavily supported by the Latino community.
"I've indicated I would veto the DREAM Act if provisions included in that act say that people who were here illegally -- if they go to school here long enough, if they get a degree here -- then they can become permanent residents," he said during a GOP debate in South Carolina, in response to a question about how his immigration views would play with Latino voters. "I think that's a mistake."
Romney previously said he would veto the bill to provide legal status to some undocumented immigrants as long as they came to the U.S. as children, kept a clean criminal record and either attended college or joined the military.
The bill has languished in Congress for more than a decade despite bipartisan support, and is considered a step toward the larger effort of comprehensive immigration reform. Republicans have supported the measure in the past because it applies only to those brought to the United States as children and who served in the military or went to college.
Romney's statements on the DREAM Act have been controversial, earning him ire from some Republican Latino groups. Some Republican strategists have said he should tamp down his immigration statements if he wants to win Latino voters, who will be important in Florida and, moving forward, in the general election.
Romney said that aiding those eligible under the DREAM Act would only encourage more people to enter the country without documentation. He has said he opposes any paths to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, whom he said should instead return to their native countries and apply for legal reentry.
"I think we have to follow the law and insist that those that have come here illegally return home and apply -- get in line with everyone else," he said.
Under current law, many undocumented immigrants face a three- or 10-year bar for reentering the United States after they leave, and long wait times make it difficult, if not impossible, to return, even if they have citizen spouses or children residing in the country.
Romney said he "loves legal immigration," but declined to go into details. He has said previously that paths to legal status should be made easier for high-skilled immigrants.
He finished his discussion on immigration on Monday by saying border security should be the first priority. That issue, too, is somewhat controversial among Latino voters.
In a recent poll from Univision and Latino Decisions, 66 percent of Latinos polled said they believe Republicans who say the border must be "secured" before any immigration policy changes are actually trying to block reform.