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Gingrich Immigration Plan Derided as ‘Amnesty’ in Debate

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Photographer: David McNew/Getty Images

People watch the rally on what is dubbed a "Day Without Immigrants" or the "Great American Boycott" in Los Angeles.

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Photographer: David McNew/Getty Images

People watch the rally on what is dubbed a "Day Without Immigrants" or the "Great American Boycott" in Los Angeles. Close

People watch the rally on what is dubbed a "Day Without Immigrants" or the "Great American Boycott" in Los Angeles.

Photographer: Toni Sandys/Pool via Bloomberg

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, right, said he was “prepared to take the heat” for advocating a policy that, while deporting recent illegal immigrants, would make an exception for those who came long ago and laid down roots. Close

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, right, said he was “prepared to take the heat” for advocating a policy that,... Read More

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Republican presidential candidates, left to right, Rick Santorum, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), and Jon Huntsman place their hands over their hearts during the national anthem prior to a debate at Constitution Hall November 22, 2011 in Washington. Close

Republican presidential candidates, left to right, Rick Santorum, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Mitt... Read More

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Herman Cain, Republican presidential candidate. Close

Herman Cain, Republican presidential candidate.

Newt Gingrich defended his call for a “humane” policy of allowing some illegal immigrants to stay legally in the U.S. against criticism from his Republican presidential rivals, suggesting Mitt Romney’s repudiation of the idea was a reversal from his previous position.

Gingrich took to the social media Internet site Twitter to say that Romney -- who denounced Gingrich’s position in a televised debate last night as “amnesty” and a magnet for illegality -- advocated a similar approach as recently as 2007, during his first presidential bid.

Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker whose recent surge in the polls has him challenging Romney for front-runner status, posted a Twitter message linking to a clip of the former Massachusetts governor’s 2007 appearance on the NBC program “Meet the Press,” in which Romney said: “The 12 million or so that are here illegally should be able to sign up for permanent residency or citizenship.”

Romney took Gingrich to task last night for saying that otherwise law-abiding immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally 25 years ago, have children and grandchildren here, pay taxes and belong to a church shouldn’t be uprooted and separated from their families.

Amnesty ‘Magnet’

“Amnesty is a magnet,” Romney said in Washington during the two-hour national security-focused debate at DAR Constitution Hall. “People respond to incentives. And if you could become a permanent resident of the United States by coming here illegally, you’ll do so.”

“So what’s your position on citizenship for illegals again?” Gingrich said in the message he posted today along with Romney’s 2007 interview clip.

In fact, Romney qualified his statement at the time by saying that while he supported giving some of the 12 million undocumented immigrants a way to gain legal status, “they should not be given a special pathway, a special guarantee that all of them get to stay here for the rest of their lives.” The “great majority” should eventually be sent home, he said.

Romney told Iowa voters during a telephone call organized by his campaign today that he has never changed positions on the issue, and has always believed that illegal immigrants should be sent back to their countries of origin to apply for legal status. “I just don’t think that those who have come here illegally should be given a special pathway, a special deal,” Romney told a voter who questioned him on the issue.

Obama Camp Hits Romney

President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign also attacked Romney, organizing a conference call by Hispanic leaders who accused him of changing his position on immigration to court Republican-base voters.

“In today’s political climate, I think he feels he needs to oppose any kind of humane policy,” Democratic Representative Silvestre Reyes of Texas said during the call.

Ben LaBolt, an Obama campaign spokesman, said Romney had “demagogued the issue of immigration in a politically craven way,” and was the “most right-wing presidential candidate” in recent history on the issue.

Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman, said the criticism was part of the Obama campaign’s “kill Romney” strategy and an attempt to distract voters from the president’s economic policies.

‘Path to Legality’

Gingrich, working to rebut Republican criticism of his stance, posted a 10-point immigration plan. It includes securing the border, creating a guest-worker program and promoting legal immigration by high-skilled foreign workers, and creating “a path to legality” for illegal immigrants with “deep ties to America.” It also calls for “a path to swift but dignified repatriation” for those with no such ties.

“I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families,” Gingrich said during the debate. “And I’m prepared to take the heat for saying, let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship, but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.”

The comment drew fresh criticism today from Iowa Representative Steve King, who said in an Iowa Public Television interview airing tonight that it “makes it harder” to support Gingrich.

‘Open-Borders Republicans’

Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann equated Gingrich’s approach to giving amnesty to 11 million people. Her campaign fired off a document last night attacking Gingrich for his position. In it, Bachmann said Gingrich has long favored creating a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, adding that he “joined other open-borders Republicans” in backing former President George W. Bush’s “regrettable proposal for illegal-alien amnesty.”

Texas Governor Rick Perry pledged to secure the border within a year of taking office if he were elected, yet he also hinted at a more permissive approach akin to what Gingrich advocated to dealing with illegal immigrants already in the U.S.

“There is a way that, after we secure that border, that you can have a process in place for individuals who are law- abiding citizens who have done only one thing -- as Newt says, 25 years ago or whatever that period of time was -- that you can put something in place that basically continues to keep those families together,” Perry said.

Perry’s Immigration Stumble

Perry himself ran into trouble on immigration in a Sept. 22 debate, when he said critics of in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants -- a policy he has championed as governor -- don’t “have a heart.” His opponents, particularly Romney, excoriated him for the statement, and he ultimately retracted it. Perry still hasn’t recovered from his drop in the polls following that episode and other debate gaffes.

A Bloomberg News poll released Nov. 15 found that 42 percent of likely Iowa Republican caucus attendees said past support for a law like the one Perry signed allowing in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants would be a disqualifier for a presidential candidate.

In a two-hour debate that focused mostly on foreign policy, the question of immigration was just one point of contention among the eight Republican presidential contenders. They also sparred over the most effective way to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, an extension of the USA Patriot Act, defense-spending cuts, wars and terrorism.

Businessman Herman Cain said he would support Israel in an attack on Iran if it was “clear what the mission was.”

Voters Oppose Attack

A poll released today by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Connecticut, found 55 percent of voters oppose a U.S. military strike against Iran, with 36 percent in support. If sanctions fail, then 50 percent would support and 38 percent would oppose a strike, according to the telephone survey of 2,552 registered voters. The poll, conducted Nov. 14-20, has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.9 percentage points.

“Replacing the regime before they get a nuclear weapon without a war beats replacing the regime with war, which beats allowing them to have a nuclear weapon,” Gingrich, who has supported increased covert action, said during the debate.

Romney said sanctions on Iran, which were stepped up this week by Obama, should be tougher still, even if it crippled Iran’s oil industry.

“I know it’s going to make gasoline more expensive,” he said. “There’s no price that is worth an Iranian nuclear weapon.”

Representative Ron Paul of Texas criticized Cain’s willingness to assist Israel with an attack on Iran.

“If they want to bomb something, it’s their business, and they should face their consequences,” Paul said. “Israel is quite capable of taking care of themselves.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at jdavis159@bloomberg.net; Roxana Tiron in Washington at rtiron@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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