No one would normally mistake Newt Gingrich’s brand of Republican politics with the “compassionate conservatism” once famously espoused by George W. Bush.
In recent days, the GOP presidential candidate has urged Occupy protesters to “go get a job right after you take a bath.” He has also recommended firing unionized school janitors and hiring poor students to work in their place.
But his call during a Republican debate this week for a more “humane” U.S. policy toward illegal immigrants revealed a different side to the former House Speaker–one that may ultimately damage his chances of becoming the party’s 2012 nominee.
Gingrich, now atop several Republican polls, endorsed a version of amnesty that would grant long-term undocumented aliens a ‘red card’ visa allowing them to gain legal status without earning U.S. citizenship.
He also backed elements of the so-called Dream Act, which would award citizenship to illegal immigrants who serve honourably in the U.S. armed forces.
“If you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out,” Gingrich said during a Tuesday night Republican debate in Washington.
“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 moderate position runs counter to prevailing views among many conservative Republicans, who have largely cheered efforts by immigration hardliners in states like Alabama and Arizona to crack down on illegal workers.
Gingrich’s remarks drew sharp denunciations from campaign rivals Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, and Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann.
Bachmann’s campaign issued a statement saying Gingrich’s position “effectively equates to amnesty for foreigners residing in the United States unlawfully.”
This is dangerous political territory for Gingrich, who spent months campaigning in virtual anonymity before surging–on the strength of sharp debate performances–into the top tier of the Republican race.
Dating to Bush’s presidency, Republicans have consistently blocked immigration reform legislation that even hints at providing a path to legal status or citizenship for people who have come to America illegally.
Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee, nearly had his campaign collapse in early-voting states like Iowa and South Carolina for supporting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
In 2010, Senate Republicans filibustered legislation that would have granted legal status to about 500,000 people who arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16 and had attended college or served in the military.
If anything, Republican sentiment on immigration policy has hardened since then.
The Republican legislature in Alabama last June passed a bill–considered the toughest in the nation–that bars illegal immigrants from attending college and requires public schools to investigate the status of students.
Defending a more moderate approach on immigration has already proven perilous for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who found himself pilloried by right-wing commentators for supporting the provision of college tuition aid to students brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.
“I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry told other GOP candidates who opposed the tuition assistance. His support in polls began to drop shortly after, as conservatives questioned his stance, and Perry was compelled to express regret for his remark.
Gingrich offered a somewhat more artful defence of his position, saying he was “prepared to take the heat for saying let’s be humane” toward the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
Still, Gingrich left an opening for Romney, who has lately been jockeying for top spot in Republican polls with the former House Speaker.
“The idea of focusing a Republican debate on amnesty and who we’re going to give it to is a huge mistake,” Romney said.
Granting legal status to people who came to the U.S. unlawfully would be a “magnet” that is “going to only encourage more people to come here illegally.”
The immigration reform plan favoured by Gingrich is similar in spirit to one supported by President Barack Obama, and one that Bush backed during his second term in the White House.
With comprehensive immigration reform going nowhere in Congress, the Obama administration has recently moved to curtail deportation proceedings against non-criminal undocumented aliens.
Gingrich, for his part, said his position mirrored the view taken by President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s. Gingrich said that if “you have come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home, period.”
But he favours providing skilled worker visas to every foreigner who earned a “graduate degree in math, science and engineering” from an American university.
Long-standing illegal immigrants, Gingrich said, would get a ‘red card’–a visa for non-citizens–if they left the U.S. and re-entered with the support of an employer.