Newt Gingrich, the latest frontrunner in the 2012 GOP presidential field has wasted little time in testing his appeal for the party's social conservative base, with comments in Tuesday night's CNN debate in favor of a more "humane" approach to enforcing immigration law. In the forum--a national-security debate that the cable network cosponsored with conservative think tanks Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute--Gingrich argued to extend the basic protections of citizenship to the families of otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants.
"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 that have been here a quarter century," the former House Speaker said. "And I'm prepared to take the heat for saying 'let's be humane and enforce the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so they are not separate from their families.'" You can watch Gingrich's comments in the CNN clip below:
Gingrich—who advocates the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation's immigration proposal to create "red card" work permits-- said he does support deporting recent illegal immigrants. But he did disown a hardline policy of seeking out and punishing children of illegal immigrants, including those who wish to serve in the U.S. military. As rival candidate Michele Bachmann was quick to point out, Gingrich's position shares many affinities with the DREAM Act proposal defeated in Congress last year. And Bachmann, together with other conservative candidates on the dais, called out Gingrich for backing a version of amnesty for the families of people who entered the United States illegally.
"I don't agree that you would make 11 million [illegal] workers [in this country] legal," Bachmann said. "Because that in effect is amnesty. And I also don't agree that you would give the DREAM Act on a federal level."
In a follow-up exchange on the issue, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said he agreed with Gingrich that foreign students with masters degrees should be encouraged to remain in this country via green cards. But Romney also stressed that he agreed with moderater Wolf Blitzer's suggestion that Gingrich's policies would entice more illegal immigrants to come to America.
"There's no question," Romney said. "That will only encourage more people to do the same thing. People respond to incentives, and if you can become a permanent resident of the United States by coming here illegally, you'll do so."
Five minutes after the debate ended, Bachmann's campaign issued a press release entitled "Newt Gingrich's Open Door to Illegal Immigrant Amnesty." The Bachmann camp listed Gingrich's past statements in support of the enforcement policy he outlined tonight.
Gingrich, a staunch conservative, has long backed creating paths for otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants to work in America--but Tuesday's comments are likely to make significant waves now that he's atop the presidential polls.
The fledgling 2012 campaign has already seen one early frontrunner stumble on the thorny immigration question. In September, Texas Gov. Rick Perry--who had enjoyed a strong initial run in the polls after he announced his presidential candidacy--tried to make a similar case for a less hardline immigration policy during a debate in Orlando, Fla.
In that forum, Perry stated that opponents of a Texas policy permitting in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants "don't have a heart."
After conservatives assailed Perry for that comment, he backpedaled, saying that his choice of words hadn't been sound.
Former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas, who revealed in a June story for the New York Times that he was an undocumented illegal immigrant, offered praise for Gingrich immediately following the forum.
"Both sides need to elevate the conversation about immigration, and that is why I applaud Newt Gingrich for his compassionate, common sense and solution-based approach to our country's immigration problem," Vargas wrote in an email to Yahoo News. "The system is broken; that much, we can all agree on. But let's start talking realistically and pragmatically about dealing with immigrants like me--who were schooled in America and have paid income taxes here in America--who are Americans in all but paper. I ask Gingrich to also visit Define American and perhaps submit a video. How does he define American? "
Gingrich reiterated his position after the debate, telling CNN in an on-camera interview that he can't imagine any "serious person" telling someone they've long known that they must abandon their family, their church as "we're kicking you out forcibly."
And he rejected the suggestion his position opens the door to amnesty. "It's totally inaccurate," Gingrich replied, saying the next president must work to unify the country with similar measure. "Romney had it right when he said we favor immigration," Gingrich said of the United States.
Correction 7:49 a.m. ET: A previous version of this story stated that Mitt Romney offered support for illegal immigrants with masters degrees to remain in the United States. Romney offered support for foreign students with masters degrees.
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Laura Rozen contributed to this story.