LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Mitt Romney struck a more conciliatory tone toward illegal immigrants Thursday than he took during the Republican primary season, but he backed only limited steps to address the concerns of many Hispanic voters as he confronted one of the trickiest issues in his efforts to build a broad general election coalition.
Speaking to a group of Hispanic officials in the heart of a swing state, Mr. Romney made his most extensive remarks on immigration since President Barack Obama announced last week that he would use executive authority to allow many young people who are in the country illegally to avoid deportation.
Mr. Romney pledged Thursday to take steps to reduce the number of families broken up by deportation orders, reiterated his support for giving legal status to illegal immigrants who serve in the military and said he would "staple a green card" to the diplomas of immigrants who receive advanced degrees.
He did not repeat the language he used during the primary season about encouraging illegal immigrants to "self-deport," and he did not address Arizona's controversial law, now before the Supreme Court, that requires law enforcement officers there to demand proof of immigration status when they suspect someone might be in the United States illegally. But he remained vague about whether he would leave in place the temporary measures Mr. Obama has taken to allow young people to remain in the United States.
"We can find common ground here, and we've got to," Mr. Romney said. "We owe it to ourselves as Americans to ensure that our country remains a land of opportunity -- both for those who were born here and for those who share our values, respect our laws and want to come to our shores."
Mr. Romney's nearly 20-minute Florida speech was met with tepid applause and moments of pointed silence. He seemed to hit his stride near the middle of his remarks, when he talked about balancing the budget, giving parents a choice of where to send their children to school and providing a path to legal status for immigrants who have served in the military. At the end, about half the room stood up to applaud.
Today, Mr. Obama is scheduled to address the same group -- the annual conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials -- making the gathering a high-profile campaign forum that further highlights the philosophical divide over the issue and the political stakes. Mr. Obama's campaign dismissed Mr. Romney's remarks, saying he had shown his true colors during the primaries.
Mr. Romney angered many Latinos during his battle to win the Republican nomination against challenges from his right. In particular, Mr. Romney said then that as president he would veto the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who were brought into the country at a young age and went on to attend college. But his remarks Thursday reflected a softening in pitch on Hispanic and immigration issues, as Mr. Romney tries to woo Hispanic voters, who are crucial in swing states such as Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Virginia.
Mr. Romney's challenge is to appeal to those voters, whose growing numbers in important swing states could make the difference in November, while not seeming to shift from the immigration positions he took during the early nominating contests in a way that could open him to charges of flip-flopping and alienate his conservative base. The topic is a sensitive one for the Romney campaign, which cut short a conference call with the media Wednesday when reporters began asking questions about the issue.
Aside from tone, Mr. Romney's policy positions were as notable for what he did not say as for what he did. He did not go as far as he seemed to last week, when he expressed support for a proposal by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that would have addressed the status of illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children. Instead, Mr. Romney repeated a position he took earlier this year that he would embrace "a path to legal status" for undocumented young people who serve in the military. (Mr. Rubio would grant a visa to those pursuing higher education.)
Mr. Romney's most concrete proposal -- and one he had not made before -- was to expand the number of permanent resident visas, or green cards, to green-card holders' spouses and children living abroad. Currently, there is a cap, with a backlog of 2 1/2 years to receive a visa, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Washington. Conservative groups oppose lifting the quotas, which they call "chain migration."
Mr. Romney also called for updating the system of temporary-worker visas.