If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the many Republican presidential debates this year, it’s that frontrunners should do their best not to tell the GOP base how it should feel about illegal immigrants.
Yet that’s exactly what Newt Gingrich did during Tuesday’s foreign policy-themed debate on CNN, casting himself as Mr. Dignity when it comes to dealing with the millions of illegal immigrants who’ve been in the U.S. for years.
During a discussion of illegal immigration led by moderator Wolf Blitzer, Gingrich — who Blitzer pointed out voted in favor of so-called “amnesty” legislation in the past — the latest frontrunner for the nomination said clearly that Republicans need to show a little compassion to illegal immigrant families who’ve been living in this country for decades.
Gingrich seemed to know this might cause trouble.
“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,’” Gingrich said.
His full quote:
I do not believe that the people of the United States are going to take people who have been here a quarter century, who have children and grandchildren, who are members of the community, who may have done something 25 years ago, separate them from their families and expel them. I do believe if you’ve been here recently and have no ties to the U.S., we should deport you. I do believe we should control the border. I do believe we have various penalties for employers, but i urge you to look at the Krieble Foundation plan. The party that says it’s the party of the family is not going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families who have been here a quarter century. 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.
While the answer might not raise an eyebrow among Democrats — or many Hispanic voters for that matter — taking a similar tack proved to be a real problem for Rick Perry, who rocketed up to first place in the presidential contest in August only to see all his momentum crushed when he said people who oppose in-state tuition prices for the children of illegal immigrants “don’t have a heart” on the debate stage.
Mitt Romney and other Republicans went on the attack, Perry’s numbers fell, and then he apologized. He’s been trying to distance himself from the moment ever since.
Michele Bachmann jumped on the Gingrich moment within minutes of Gingrich’s answer on stage. “Newt Gingrich’s Open Door to Illegal Immigrant Amnesty,” read a press release from her campaign. In an after-debate pullaside with a CNN reporter she also said, “if you’re legalizing 11 million workers, that sounds like amnesty to me.”
After the debate, Bachmann spokesperson Alice Stewart told TPM that differing with Gingrich on illegal immigrants doesn’t make a Republican a bad person.
“Just because you disagree with the Speaker doesn’t mean you’re on inhumane,” she said. “It’s a policy difference and she’s right on the issue and he’s wrong.”
In an interview after the debate, Gingrich was already on the defensive.
“That is just totally inaccurate,” Gingrich said in response to Team Bachmann’s release.
“What I’ve said is the foundation has a very good program for legalization without citizenship for people who have been here a long time. Now, I’m one — I want to say, go home to lots of people, i between create a border that’s controlled. I want a guest worker program outsourced to American Express or Visa or Mastercard. I want English as the official language of government. I’m willing to be tough but I’m not willing to kid people and i can’t imagine any serious person here in the country who believes we’re going to tear families apart that have been here 20, 25 years.”
After the debate, the Gingrich team didn’t try to spin away the Gingrich line. In fact, if anything, they embraced it. Team Gingrich suggested they’re not worried about going out the same way Perry did as they doubled down on Gingrich’s onstage compassion.
“Newt has a commitment to human dignity,” Tina Ramirez, Gingrich’s National Security adviser, told TPM. “He has that commitment across the board with people around the world, not just with people who are immigrants here in America. He’s supported religious freedom in Egypt for instance, and he’s been speaking out in — if you look at his nine days that change the world in Poland, he talked about the rule of communism was brought down by the understanding of religious freedom and dignity.”
Benjy Sarlin contributed from the spin room.