Gingrich, Romney Face Criticism on Illegal Immigration Stances

Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, defended competing views on immigration yesterday, one day after Gingrich called for a “humane” approach of allowing some illegal immigrants to stay legally in the U.S.

Gingrich took to the social media Internet site Twitter to charge that Romney -- who denounced Gingrich’s position in a televised Nov. 22 debate as “amnesty” and a magnet for undocumented immigrants -- 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 at this week’s debate for saying that while some newly arrived illegal immigrants with no U.S. ties should be deported, otherwise law-abiding immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally 25 years ago, have children and grandchildren, pay taxes, and belong to a church shouldn’t be uprooted and separated from their families.

Amnesty ‘Magnet’

“Amnesty is a magnet,” Romney said during the debate in Washington. “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 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 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.

Not Drawing Lines

Still, Romney has declined to say whether his policy would distinguish, as Gingrich would, between recently arrived illegal immigrants and those who have been in the U.S. longer.

“I’m not going to start drawing lines here about who gets to stay and who gets to go,” Romney said during the debate. “The principle is that we’re not going to have an amnesty system that says that people who come here illegally get to stay for the rest of their life in this country legally.”

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

Republican Rifts

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 record.

The exchanges highlighted internal divisions in Republican ranks over immigration, an issue that inspires strong feelings, particularly among a core of party voters who consider any proposal short of deporting all illegal immigrants to be amnesty for lawbreakers.

Gingrich directly challenged that view at the debate, saying, “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. 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 statement, Iowa Representative Steve King said in an Iowa Public Television interview last night, “makes it harder” to support Gingrich’s candidacy.

‘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.

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

Texas Governor Rick Perry pledged during the debate 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.

Keeping Families Together

“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 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.

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