COLONIA JUAREZ (Reuters) - In a lush desert oasis in northern Mexico that Republican challenger Mitt Romney has never visited, his Mormon cousins are praying he will win the keys to the White House - and once in the door, rethink his immigration policies.
Kent Romney, 67, a fruit grower and distributor of fruit-packing supplies, said as Americans voted on Tuesday that his second cousin Mitt would make a good president.
“He has shown in the past he knows how to reach across the aisle and create consensus,” he said, although he added that he hoped Romney would address immigration reform if he were elected.
“Making things so tough that people would go home by themselves is not a realistic option,” he said.
Republicans generally back strict controls against illegal immigration and Romney took a hard line in the presidential primaries, saying he supported what he called self-deportation for illegal immigrants.
President Barack Obama had the edge in the race for the White House late on Tuesday with wins in key swing states that limited Romney’s path to victory as U.S. voters decided a hotly contested election.
Mitt Romney’s great-grandfather Miles P. Romney crossed south of the border in the 1880s, like other early Mormon settlers in Mexico fleeing U.S. marshals who were seeking to arrest him for practicing polygamy.
His descendants still live in Mormon enclaves in the state of Chihuahua about 200 miles from the U.S. border and near where Mitt’s father, George Romney, was born.
There are about 300 Mormons left in the area, and dozens have the Romney surname. On Tuesday, they were closely following the election battle between Romney and Obama.
Michael Romney, the vice principal of the main school in Colonia Juarez and another second cousin, said Mitt Romney’s Mormon roots gave him the moral foundation to do the better job. “He won’t be caught with some other woman. He won’t be caught in scandals. He’ll do what he feels is best for the country.”
Kent Romney’s cousin Kelly Romney was also rooting for the Republican, but added that his attitude on immigration appeared “heavy-handed”.
“If he wins, I hope some of the family members can make contact with him and ... point out some things that he and a lot of people don’t realize,” he said.
Kelly Romney would like to see Mexican workers given temporary work visas in the United States. “Americans don’t want to do that kind of work, pick peaches, pick apples, pick lettuce and so on.”
He said he had tried to contact Mitt Romney several times to encourage a more flexible approach on Mexican immigration and even sent a note. He doubts it reached him.
Colonia Juarez is now an oasis of green fields, manicured lawns, well-pruned trees and American-style suburban life, hemmed in by mile upon mile of desert waste and scrubland.
Driving down a hill into the idyllic surroundings, a gold statue glimmers atop a white Mormon temple. In the cemetery, the modest graves of Romneys have simple stone plaques, while flowers and crosses adorn elaborate Mexican tombs.
Mitt Romney sought to capitalize on his Mexican links to woo Hispanic voters, pointing out that his father was Mexican-born. But he has said little beyond that about this part of his family history.
George Romney was just 5 years old when the family left the area in 1912, driven out under threat from Pancho Villa’s rebel troops during the Mexican Revolution.
While other Mormons went back when things died down, George Romney’s parents settled in the United States. He became a successful car executive and Michigan governor, and made his own presidential bid, failing to win the Republican nomination in 1968.
Romney’s relatives say it is the determined pioneer spirit of his forebears - who lived in dirt dug-outs and overturned wagons, irrigated a craggy desert to raise herds of cattle and cultivated peach and apple orchards - that he would bring to the presidency.
Kelly Romney’s son, Derrick, a farmer and rancher wearing a cowboy hat and leather boots, said Mitt Romney would do a much better job with the U.S. economy than Obama had.
“If you look at what Obama has done, anybody would be proud (of Mitt Romney),” he said in a slightly Southern drawl. Outside his farm office, Mexican workers were servicing farm machinery.
Two of Mitt Romney’s siblings visited Colonia Juarez several years ago to see a small wooden train station said to be built by his great-grandfather and other landmarks from the family’s past.
Miles P. Romney married five women over the course of his life and fathered more than a dozen children. They faced harsh winters, hunger and lived in a precarious home with a dirt roof.
Polygamy, or “plural marriage” as it is known in the Mormon religion, was outlawed by the U.S. government in 1882 and banned by the Mormon church in 1890. Mitt Romney has called polygamy “bizarre.”
Michael Romney, the school vice principal, said Romney had probably made it easier for other Mormons to aspire to the U.S. presidency, regardless of whether he wins.
“Mitt has brought the church out into the open to the political world like it has never been before, which has been great for the church,” he said.
But he said that not all the Romneys were behind the Republican candidate, noting that his nephew Jeff was a staunch Democrat. “But he lives in El Paso (Texas),” he said laughing. “Definitely an Obama fan.”
Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Kieran Murray and Peter Cooney