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Romney softens his immigration rhetoric; Outlines plans on issue before Hispanic leaders

Backing off the harsh rhetoric of the Republican primaries, Mitt Romney pledged Thursday to address illegal immigration "in a civil but resolute manner." He outlined plans to overhaul the green card system for immigrants with families, and end immigration caps for their spouses and minor children.

In a speech before Hispanic leaders, Romney made only passing mention of his promise to complete a 2,000-mile border fence to help stem illegal immigration. Instead he attacked President Obama's new plan to ease deportation rules for some illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children as little more than a "stop-gap measure."

"As president, I won't settle for a stop-gap measure. I will work with Republicans and Democrats to find a long-term solution," Romney told the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Obama is riding a wave of Latino enthusiasm over his decision to allow hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to stay in the country and work. Under the administration plan, illegal immigrants can avoid deportation if they can prove they were brought to the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history, and graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED or served in the military.

Romney again refused to say whether he would reverse Obama's policy, promising his "own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president's temporary measure." The former Massachusetts governor has struggled in recent days to clarify his immigration policy as he pivots from the sharp tone that defined the months-long GOP primary to a general election audience in which Latinos will play a critical role.

During the primaries, Romney and his Republican opponents focused on border security and English as the official language, but the former Massachusetts governor didn't spell out precisely what he would do to address the nation's immigration problem.

Romney was vague in some areas -- particularly the treatment of immigrant children brought to the country illegally by their parents -- but offered new details in others.

His plan to reallocate green cards for immigrants with families and end caps for spouses and minor children would mark a change from the current system, which is something of a first come, first served system. And his pledge to "staple a green card to your diploma" for immigrants who earned advanced degrees in the United States represents a significant change from current law.

It was clear that Romney was on unfriendly turf as he addressed several hundred Hispanic leaders in a Disney World ballroom, particularly when the Republican candidate went after the president's health care overhaul.

"If jobs are your priority, you've got to get rid of ObamaCare," Romney said, offering a line that typically prompts cheers at his rallies. But among the Hispanic crowd Thursday, only a handful applauded. At least one person booed.