Gingrich, Romney Spar Over Immigration in GOP Debate

Gingrich, Romney Spar Over Immigration in GOP Debate

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - November 23, 2011

In the 11th major debate in a marathon schedule that has already altered the pecking order, many of the foreign policy challenges facing the United States were thrashed out Tuesday night by the Republican presidential candidates, culminating in a spirited exchange over illegal immigration.

Newt Gingrich, the latest candidate to challenge Mitt Romney's front-runner status, staked out a position more liberal than those of his rivals, stating that deporting a someone who has been living, working, paying taxes, and attending church here for 25 years is not a practical or "humane" solution.

In so doing, Gingrich brought to mind a September debate discussion that included a bitter exchange between Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- who expressed sentiments similar to Gingrich’s -- and Mitt Romney, who drew a harsh line on illegal immigration.

"I do believe if you've come here recently and you have no ties to the U.S., we should deport you," Gingrich said during the debate held in Washington, D.C.’s historic Constitution Hall. However, he added, “I don't see any reason to punish someone who came here at 3 years of age and wants to serve the United States of America.”

These are the same types of comments that landed Perry in the hot seat when he said that anyone who disagrees with his policy to grant in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants doesn’t “have a heart.” Romney lambasted Perry for this remark, from which the Texas governor later retreated, saying his characterization had been inappropriate.

Last night, it was Gingrich’s turn in the line of fire, but he made it clear he won’t be retracting anything. “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,’ ” he said.

Romney characterized Gingrich’s policy as amnesty -- and a “magnet” that encourages illegal immigrants to move to America without seeking citizenship -- and the Texas governor agreed, saying, “Here we go again, Mitt.” Romney reminded voters that Republicans “love legal immigration.” But he added that the Obama administration needs to “turn off magnets of amnesty.” Minutes later, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s campaign piled on, emailing a press release with “Newt Gingrich’s Open Door to Illegal Immigrant Amnesty” in the subject line.

After the debate, Gingrich’s campaign tried to squelch the impression that the former House speaker’s comments might strike a nerve among conservative voters in the upcoming GOP primaries.

“If you go ask any Republicans, given a choice between someone who is a thug, a criminal, a member of a gang, it’s a very easy explanation: deport them,” spokesman R.C. Hammond told RCP. But he echoed his boss’ earlier comments that those who have shown more of a commitment to this country should be shown a path to legality.

Striking back, several Gingrich surrogates circulated a 2007 clip from “Meet the Press” in which the late Tim Russert read a quote that Romney gave to the Lowell Sun: "I don't believe in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from our country. With these 11 million people, let's have them registered, know who they are. Those who've been arrested or convicted of crimes shouldn't be here; those that are paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process towards application for citizenship, as they would from their home country."

Nonetheless, Romney’s camp portrayed Gingrich’s maneuver last night as an unforced error -- and not his first on the subject of immigration.

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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