A couple of months ago, Romney campaign spokesperson Eric Fehrnstrom was asked what a Romney administration would do with undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. Fehrnstrom said Romney “doesn’t believe in granting them amnesty,” but when asked what Romney sees as an alternative, the campaign spokesperson would only say, “He would not grant them amnesty.”

Team Romney was comfortable saying what they’re against, but not what they’re for. It wasn’t exactly illuminating.

Last night, Adam Smith, the political editor at the Tampa Bay Times, asked the former governor a good question: “You say you don’t want to go and round up people and deport them, but you also say that they would have to go back to their home countries and then apply for citizenship. So, if you don’t deport them, how do you send them home?”

Romney replied, “Well, the answer is self-deportation.”

And what, exactly, does that mean? Adam Serwer explained that the point is to make life so miserable for these immigrants that they simply leave on their own.

This is the right-wing’s answer to the question of how you deport eleven million unauthorized immigrants: You don’t. You force them to “deport themselves.” Although immigration reform advocates would prefer a solution that involves a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants already here, Romney and his top immigration advisers believe they can remove millions of people through heavy-handed enforcement that makes life for unauthorized immigrants intolerable. This approach is notable for its complete lack of discretion and flexibility. Unauthorized immigrant parents with citizen children who need to go to school? Americans who are married to an undocumented immigrant who needs medical treatment? “Self-deportation” hits them all with the same mailed fist. […]

[M]ake no mistake, when Romney is discussing “self-deportation,” he’s talking about creating a United States where parents are afraid to register their kids for school or get them immunized because they might be asked for proof of citizenship. He’s talking about the type of country where local police can demand your immigration status based on mere suspicion that you don’t belong around here. “Self-deportation” is just a cleaner, less cruel-sounding way of endorsing harsh, coercive government policies in order to make life for unauthorized immigrants so unbearable that they have no choice but to find some way to leave.

On immigration, it’s fair to say Romney is the most right-wing candidate of the modern political era.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.