Then Gingrich said this: “If you’ve come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home. Period. 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.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) was the first to disagree. But the more important dissent came from Romney, who through his two presidential campaigns has taken a hard line on those who are here illegally without ever being precise about how he would send them back home or what provisions he would propose to allow them to remain.
In the debate, Romney called amnesty a “magnet” that would make the problem worse. “To say that we’re going to say to the people who have come here illegally that now you’re all going to get to stay or some large number are going to get to stay and become permanent residents of the United States, that will only encourage more people to do the same thing.”
Gingrich should have been smart enough to know the potential trouble he was walking into, but because he has said it before, he may have underestimated the impact his words would have. Whatever the case, he did not equivocate in his response.
“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,” he said. “And 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.”
Blitzer pressed Romney on whether he would consider allowing immigrants who have been in the United States illegally for 25 years to stay. “I’m not going to start drawing lines here about who gets to stay and who gets to go,” Romney responded. “The principle is that we are not going to have an amnesty system that says that people who come here illegally get to stay for the rest of their life in this country legally.”
By Wednesday morning, Democrats were criticizing Romney for what they said was his attack on a humane immigration policy. The quick and sharp reaction is a signal that Democrats think Romney will be President Obama’s challenger in the general election.
What is more important is how Gingrich weathers the controversy. He demonstrated Tuesday that he is more skillful in talking about the issue than Perry is, well versed in the complexities and willing to stick his neck out.
That, however, may not be enough to prevent damage, and the Romney team appeared eager to keep the focus on Gingrich’s words.
As the controversy continued Wednesday, Gingrich tweeted out a link to a 10-point immigration plan that includes plenty of tough provisions he favors in addition to his humane approach to some of those in the country illegally.
In his e-mail message, Gingrich explained why he wasn’t concerned that the issue could damage his candidacy. Romney, he said, “has been on both sides” of the issue over the years. Bachmann, he argued, is distorting his position. And, he added, the GOP politician most rabidly opposed to illegal immigration in recent years, former congressman Tom Tancredo (Colo.), “got few votes for his position.”
Perhaps most important was his final statement. “I have been saying something like this for several years in every town meeting where it comes up,” he wrote.
If he is right, that he has been saying all this for a long time without triggering a backlash, then he may be on relatively solid ground. But he may be misjudging his party’s base on the issue.