Young undocumented immigrants offered a two year deferral from deportation under President Barack Obama will be allowed to remain in the country if Mitt Romney is elected president, the GOP nominee said in an interview published Tuesday.
Previously, Romney had not specified how he would handle the estimated 1.7 million people who could qualify for the new rules, which went into effect in August.
"The people who have received the special visa that the president has put in place, which is a two-year visa, should expect that the visa would continue to be valid," Romney said in the interview. "I'm not going to take something that they've purchased. Before those visas have expired, we will have the full immigration-reform plan that I've proposed."
The president's decision allows people younger than 30 who came to the United States before the age of 16, pose no criminal or security threat, and were successful students or served in the military to apply for a two-year deferral from deportation.
When the decision to allow the immigration rule changes was announced in June, Romney did not immediately say whether he would repeal the measure or allow qualifying young immigrants to stay in the country.
In an interview with CBS on June 17, Romney would say only that his administration would seek longer-term solutions to the problem of illegal immigration, and that Obama's new directive was a temporary fix.
"He was president for the last three-and-a-half years and did nothing on immigration," Romney said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "Two years he had a Democrat House and Senate, did nothing of a permanent or long-term basis. What I would do, is I'd make sure that by coming into office I would work with Congress to put in place a long-term solution for the children of those that have come here illegally."
Romney said the timing of the shift, coming less than five months ahead of November's general election, pointed to political motives on the part of the president.
"I think the timing is pretty clear, if he really wanted to make a solution that dealt with these kids or with illegal immigration in America, then this is something he would have taken up in his first three-and-a-half years, not in his last few months," Romney said.
As recently as last month, Romney was maintaining his stance on a permanent immigration solution, without saying clearly how he'd proceed with the new rules change.
"I will lead a program that gets us to a permanent solution as opposed to what was done by this president, which was with a few months before an election he puts in place something that is temporary, which does not solve the issue," Romney said in a Univision forum in September.
In the Denver Post interview published Tuesday, Romney continued his criticism of Obama's handling of immigration, saying he had broken his promise to enact immigration reform in his first term.
"I actually will propose a piece of legislation which will reform our immigration system to improve legal immigration so people don't have to hire lawyers to figure out how to get here legally," Romney said. "The president promised in his first year - his highest priority - that he would reform immigration, and he didn't. And I will."
Gabriela Domenzain, director of Hispanic Press for Obama's re-election campaign, wrote in a statement that Romney's position "raises more questions than it answers."
"He still has not said whether he would continue the Administration's policy that provides a temporary reprieve from deportation for young people who were brought here through no fault of their own. Would he side with his extreme anti-immigration advisors and repeal this measure?"
Both Romney and Obama are campaigning heavily for Latino voters, though polls consistently show the president with a large lead over Romney among the key voting demographic.
Romney has struggled in the past to frame his immigration positions in ways that appeal both to Hispanic voters and the base of the Republican Party. He took a hard line stance on the issue during the Republican primary, but in Tuesday's interview and in his forum with Univision, the candidate has adopted a softer tone.
In December, Romney said he would veto the DREAM Act if he were president, saying instead he would support a path to residency - not citizenship - for those who served in the military, but not other DREAM Act proposals.
Later, Romney gave a more detailed version of his stance, telling supporters at a fund-raiser in Florida Republicans needed to offer their own version of the DREAM Act.
At a Republican presidential debate in January, Romney said he favored a system of "self-deportation," a policy that involves making economic conditions so difficult for undocumented workers that they choose to leave the country to find better opportunities. That stance was derided both by Democrats and his Republican rivals.