Fighting to curry favor with Florida’s large pool of Hispanic voters, Newt Gingrich on Wednesday called for a guest-worker program for most illegal immigrants, but his campaign could not say whether those people would be on a path to citizenship—the key question in the immigration debate.
Under close questioning by Univision’s political host, Jorge Ramos, Mr. Gingrich said he would grant quick citizenship rights to illegal immigrants who join the military or to those who have been in the U.S. between 20 and 25 years. He said the rest of the estimated 11 million should be given access to a guest-worker program.
“With most of them? I would urge them to get a guest-worker permit,” he said, calling for a substantial rewrite of immigration laws that would cancel existing penalties and instead let illegal immigrants stay.
But his campaign said it was unclear whether at the end of that guest-worker period the immigrants would be allowed to stay and gain citizenship, essentially jumping the legal immigration line, or whether they would be required to return home.
If the guest workers would be required to go home, then Mr. Gingrich‘s position is similar to that of Republican primary rival Mitt Romney, who also has called for a transition period for illegal immigrants, during which they could stay and work while they get their affairs in order, but they would eventually have to go home.
If Mr. Gingrich envisions a path to citizenship for guest workers, then his plan is closer to President Obama‘s, who has called for a chance for nearly all illegal immigrants to become citizens at the end of a multistep process.
Immigration is a major issue but not the only one for Hispanic Republicans in Florida. Many voters are Cuban and enjoy special carve-outs in immigration law, though they do have sympathy for fellow Hispanics who are more intimately touched by illegal immigration. Indeed, many Cuban-American Republican leaders support passage of the Dream Act to legalize illegal-immigrant young adults who are going to college or joining the military.
In Florida on Wednesday, Mr. Gingrich ridiculed Mr. Romney‘s call for “self-deportation,” saying the approach lacks “humanity” and arguing that it is unrealistic for him to think stronger enforcement of the nation’s laws will persuade illegal immigrants to leave the nation voluntarily.
“For Romney to believe that somebody’s grandmother is going to be so cut off she is going to self-deport—this is an Obama-level fantasy,” he said.
Mr. Romney countered later in the day by saying Mr. Gingrich was trying to pander to Hispanic voters and hide the fact he, himself, used to argue that self-deportation was the proper solution to illegal immigration.