By Jane Sutton
LEMARS, Iowa (Reuters) - Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney said on Saturday he would veto a proposal granting U.S. citizenship to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children, a pledge that won hearty applause from Iowa conservatives he hopes to win over.
A young woman asked Romney about the bipartisan proposal known as the Dream Act, during an appearance at a crowded restaurant in Le Mars, a conservative Republican stronghold in western Iowa.
"The question is if I were elected and Congress were to pass the Dream Act, would I veto it and the answer is yes," Romney said.
"For those that come here illegally, the idea of giving them in-state tuition credits or other special benefits, I find to be contrary to the idea of a nation of laws," Romney said.
"If I'm the president of the United States I want to end illegal immigration so that we can protect legal immigration. I like legal immigration."
Under the Dream Act, which was brought up in the Senate in May, young undocumented immigrants who have lived most of their lives in the United States and graduate from U.S. high schools would be eligible for a conditional six-year "path to citizenship" if they earn a college degree or serve two years in the military.
Romney also said he would secure the U.S.-Mexico border with a fence and enough Border Patrol agents to guard it.
The remarks drew vigorous applause in Le Mars and at a later appearance in Sioux City. Romney said he would eliminate the "magnet" that draws illegal immigrants by cracking down on employers who hire them.
"We need to give those employers the tools they need to determine who's legal and illegal," he said. "But if they have those tools and don't use them, we're going to go after them just like we go after employers who don't pay their taxes," Romney said.
He said he would continue a provision that grants a fast track to citizenship for foreigners who serve in the military.
Romney has led in the opinion polls ahead of Tuesday's Iowa caucus, which kicks off the state-by-state contests to choose the Republican presidential candidate who will challenge President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in the November 2012 general election.
But he has not sealed the deal with some Iowa Republicans who doubt his conservative credentials because of his history as governor of left-leaning Massachusetts.
"We need a staunch conservative to the max and I just don't see it in anybody other than (Rick) Santorum," said Pat Renken, a Le Mars resident who manages a grain elevator. He turned out at a Romney rally despite planning to vote for Santorum, a conservative former senator from Pennsylvania.
"There's nothing that turns me off about him (Romney)," Renken said. "I just like Senator Santorum more."