This story was reported and written by Maria Cramer and Maria Sacchetti of the Globe staff and correspondent Connie Paige.
Standing on stage at a Republican debate on the Gulf Coast of Florida last week, Mitt Romney repeatedly lashed out at rival Rudy Giuliani for providing sanctuary to illegal immigrants in New York City.
Yet, the next morning, on Thursday, at least two illegal immigrants stepped out of a hulking maroon pickup truck in the driveway of Romney's Belmont house, then proceeded to spend several hours raking leaves, clearing debris from Romney's tennis court, and loading the refuse onto the truck.
In fact, their work was part of a regular pattern. Even after a Globe story in December 2006 highlighted Romney's use of a landscaping company that employs illegal immigrants to tend to his grounds, Romney continued to employ Community Lawn Service With a Heart - until yesterday. The company continued to employ illegal immigrants.
The two workers confirmed in separate interviews with Globe reporters last week that they were in the country without documents. One said he had paid $7,000 to a smuggler to escort him across the desert into Arizona; the other said he had come into the country with a student visa that has expired. Both were seen working on the lawn by either Globe reporters or photographers over the last two months.
Questioned yesterday afternoon during a campaign swing through New Hampshire about the use of illegal immigrants on his lawn, Romney declined to answer. An aide said he would issue a statement, and Romney, emerging from a Concord restaurant, said, "Did you hear him? We'll give you a statement."
Last night, the campaign issued a statement saying Romney had just learned - apparently from Globe reporters - of the company's continued practice of employing illegal immigrants, and immediately fired it.
"After this same issue arose last year, I gave the company a second chance with very specific conditions," Romney said in the statement. "They were instructed to make sure people working for the company were of legal status. We personally met with the company in order to inform them about the importance of this matter. The owner of the company guaranteed us, in very certain terms, that the company would be in total compliance with the law going forward.
"The company's failure to comply with the law is disappointing and inexcusable, and I believe it is important I take this action," Romney said.
Romney's account differs from that of landscape company owner Ricardo Saenz, who said that Romney didn't press the issue of whether his workers were in the country illegally. Asked if the Romney household expressed reservations about rehiring him after last year's story, he said, "Why would they have any problem?"
For Romney, who has made curtailing illegal immigration a cornerstone of his presidential campaign, the revelation that he continued to employ the same landscaping company quickly fueled criticism from his rivals, at least one of whom - Giuliani - has already mocked Romney's commitment to the issue on the trail. As recently as last week's Florida debate, Giuliani chided Romney for operating a "sanctuary mansion" - a reference to last year's Globe story that first highlighted the illegal immigrants working on Romney's lawn.
Throughout the campaign, Romney has spoken on the issue of illegal immigration with increasing fervor. He opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants, along with driver's licenses and breaks on college tuition. He has pushed for fences along US borders and a stronger system to let employers verify that workers are here illegally. Before his term as governor ended, he authorized Massachusetts state troopers to arrest illegal immigrants, but Governor Deval Patrick overturned it in January.
But at his home, he paid less attention to the issue. The Globe observed Saenz, the owner of the landscaping company, lead a crew of two, three, and sometimes four workers at Romney's house once a week for the past two months, the only exception being Thanksgiving week. The crew typically arrived around noon, and worked for an hour-and-a-half mowing, raking, pruning, and bagging.
Afterward, the crew retreated to the same
In an interview in the doorway of his Chelsea two-family house yesterday afternoon, Saenz, 54, said the workers he hired were here legally. "They have papers," he said. "I copied them."
Asked to show the papers to reporters to prove the workers are here legally, Saenz declined, adding that he was not obligated to verify the employees' documents with the government. "It's not my responsibility," said Saenz, who has said he met Romney through the Mormon church. "I ask them to show me papers. And if they show me papers, what can I do? I'm not an investigator who can tell if they're good or bad."
Federal law requires that employers examine a set of documents - such as a green card or passport - to verify that employees are authorized to work in this country.
Saenz's company once had contracts with the city of Chelsea and the Massachusetts Port Authority, but no longer works for them. He did not bid on the MassPort contract, and Chelsea chose a lower bidder.
Saenz said Romney took no action against his company after the Globe reported last December that he had employed three illegal immigrants to work on Romney's lawn. Saenz repeatedly denied having illegal workers at Romney's property at the time.
Saenz said he contacted the Romney family in the early spring and offered them his services, and they accepted. In May, he began the landscaping work.
He said he usually spoke about the work with Romney's wife, Ann, or one of his children, and that no one asked for papers for his workers. "What papers, if I'm a company?" Saenz asked. "I don't understand why they have to verify anything. Their job is not to check up on my company."
He said he pays his workers $10 an hour and would hire them periodically for one or two days. He said he paid them by check using a computer system to ensure that he deducted taxes.
"I do everything legal," he said.
After the crews' last visit to Romney's house last Thursday, Globe reporters followed the pickup truck through the day and back to Saenz's house in Chelsea. A Globe reporter then followed one of the workers to a nearby bodega, identified herself, and asked him about his work and legal status.
Speaking in Spanish, the worker identified himself as Justo Sanan, a 35-year-old father of three from Guatemala, and said he told Saenz as early as March that he did not have legal papers. Saenz then told him to "go get something," Sanan said.
Sanan then bought a false green card and Social Security number for $80 from a man on the street he never saw again. He showed the papers to Saenz, who he said photocopied and returned them.
"Since I started I told him I don't have papers," said Sanan, who added that he has since gotten rid of the fake papers.
Sanan, slight and wiry and a resident of a Chelsea tenement, said he sends his pay home to his family in Guatemala. He began working on Romney's house in May, even though being on Romney's 2.5-acre property made him nervous because of the former governor's position on immigration and last year's Globe story.
"The truth is that every time I arrive at that place, it pains me," he said.
The second worker was approached at a bus stop in Chelsea, after Saenz dropped him off after a day of work on Friday. Also speaking in Spanish, he identified himself as Hamilton Gracias, a 24-year-old from Guatemala who has been in the United States for three years. As a reporter rode the MBTA bus with him, Gracias said he knew nothing about working on Romney's lawn. But the prior day, he was seen by the Globe on the Romney property hoisting a plastic bin full of leaves from Romney's tennis courts.
"Of course," he said, when asked if he is here illegally. "That's why I don't work for companies."
He said he entered the country with a student visa that has expired.
The identities of the two workers could not be verified in public documents.
In a telephone interview last night, Tagg Romney confirmed that he met with Saenz on a warm March day on his front yard, with his brother, Craig, a fluent Spanish speaker, translating over a cellphone. The Romney brothers said they told Saenz they would no longer use his service because of the prior Globe story, but Saenz urged them to reconsider. He vowed there would be no undocumented workers on the property.
"He came over and he was very apologetic for what had happened and asked if he could continue with us," he said. "He asked for a second chance."
Asked if he was reluctant to rehire Saenz's company, Tagg Romney said he was not.
"He was so adamant because he would personally make sure that he would only have documented workers working with him," he said. "We trusted him. I don't know what more we can do."
Just before Romney fired him, Saenz, the Colombian-born owner of the landscape company, who is a US citizen, spoke fondly of Romney yesterday. He went so far as to endorse him for president.
"He's a man of integrity," Saenz said. "He's a whole man. Morally and spiritually, I find him to be the one who can lead this country."