As he starts to lead in primary polls, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) appears to be looking ahead to the general election. In CNN’s national security debate, he called for a “humane” immigration policy.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) speaks during the CNN GOP National Security debate in Washington, November 22, 2011. (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

“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’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 added, “I do believe if you’ve been here recently and have no ties to the U.S., we should deport you.”

“Newt did himself significant harm tonight on immigration among caucus and primary voters,” tweeted Tim Albrecht, the spokesman for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R).

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) called the proposal “amnesty.”

In a post-debate interview with CNN, Gingrich was already defending himself, saying if he was president millions of undocumented immigrants would still leave the country. “I want to say, “Go home!’ to lots of people,” he said. But, he added, “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.”

Gingrich has long been involved in Hispanic outreach efforts. He started a Web site called “The Americano” as a forum for Hispanic conservatives. He has an “Hispanic inclusion” effort as part of his campaign.

Unlike Perry, Gingrich likely won’t feel forced to walk back his remarks. He did not directly criticize those who disagree with him, and he did not advocate for a specific policy that many conservatives oppose.

Still, this proposal could cause Gingrich some problems with conservatives who want stronger, not looser, border restrictions.

The line Gingrich wants to draw — between immigrants who are “members of the community” and those who aren’t — is pretty vague. So is what he means by “create legality.”

Expect more questions on what exactly Gingrich’s “humane” approach would entail.

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