During Tuesday night’s national security debate on CNN, Newt Gingrich said he was “prepared to take the heat” for his position that immigration laws ought to be enforced “humanely” in order to avoid unnecessarily breaking up families.
Near the end of the debate, moderator Wolf Blitzer questioned Gingrich about his 1986 vote in the House of Representatives for an immigration reform bill that granted amnesty to those who entered the country illegally before 1982. Blitzer asked what a President Gingrich would do about the millions of immigrants currently residing in the country illegally.
Gingrich defended and explained his vote. “Ronald Reagan in his diary says he signed it…because we were going to get two things in return,” said the former speaker of the House. “We were going to get control of the border, and we were going to get a guest-worker program with employer enforcement. We got neither.”
He continued to say that after controlling the border and getting a guest-worker program in place, the federal government should review the people who are currently here illegally. “If you’ve come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home, period,” Gingrich said. “If you’ve been here 25 years and you’ve got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, 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’s comments brought criticism from his rivals. Michele Bachmann responded that she took the speaker to mean he wanted to effectively grant amnesty to all 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. “I don’t think we should make 11 millions workers that are here illegally legal,” Bachmann said.
“I specifically did not say that we’d make the 11 million people here legal,” Gingrich rebutted. “I do suggest if you go back to your district and you find people who have been here 25 years and have 2 generations of family and have been paying taxes and are in a local church, as somebody who believes strongly in family, you’re going to have a hard time explaining why that particular subset is being broken up and forced to leave, given the fact that they’ve been law-abiding citizens for 25 years.”
Mitt Romney also jumped into the immigration discussion, calling amnesty a “magnet” that attracts more illegal immigrants. Asked if he considers Gingrich’s position to be supporting such a magnet, Romney said there is “no question.”
“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,” Romney said. “People respond to incentives. And if you can become a permanent resident of the United States by coming here illegally, you'll do so.”
But Gingrich maintained his position. “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.”
Watch the video of the exchanges below: