One of the headlines from last night’s GOP presidential debate, which focused on foreign policy, actually has more to do with domestic policy: Whether Newt Gingrich, the latest anti-Romney frontrunner, kinda-sorta endorsed amnesty for illegal immigrants who have been in our country for a long time.
I had to go back and listen to a recording of the debate because, watching it live, I thought he might have erred by not phrasing his policy in the conventional conservative manner of 1) secure the border to stanch the flow of illegal immigrants, then 2) decide what to do with the ones already here. In fact, here’s what he said (there’s a partial transcript below the video):
I think you’ve got to deal with this as a comprehensive approach that starts with controlling the border … I believe ultimately, you have to find some system — once you’ve put every piece in place, which includes a guest-worker program, you need something like a World War Two selective service board that frankly reviews the people who are here. 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 have 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. … You get to be legal, but you don’t get a path to citizenship.
I am not quite sure that puts him far at all outside the Republican mainstream:
1. His plan “starts with controlling the border.”
2. He then adds a guest-worker program — although, admittedly, that could spark a backlash depending on how it’s done.
3. He then acknowledges that we’re not going to deport 10 million to 12 million people, and offers a kind of delineation — albeit a very vague one — between those who have been here awhile and otherwise obeyed the law, and those who haven’t. All while offering praise for immigrants who come here legally.
4. And for the ones who get to stay, he advocates only legality, not citizenship. That’s an important distinction, because Democrats think they can win generations of Hispanic support by turning illegal immigrants into legal Democratic voters.
In sketching that outline, he uses some language that I think could be very effective in winning over some skeptics, courting independents and, potentially, going some way toward making amends with Hispanics.
Specifically, I am certain the reference to “belong[ing] to a local church” was no accident. Now, I rather doubt a President Gingrich would try to impose a religious condition for an illegal immigrant to be legalized or deported — or that American courts would uphold such a test. But it is exceedingly likely that he thinks there’s appeal here for the religious wing of the party, some of which has voiced its discomfort with hard lines on immigration issues. That’s particularly likely in light of his conversion to the Catholic church, to which many Hispanic immigrants of course belong. His later reference to the “party of the family” further underscores the outreach to social conservatives.
Are there potential problems with Gingrich’s approach? Sure. As I noted above, his time-based delineation, between those who could stay here and those who would have to leave, comes off as rather arbitrary and possibly too malleable. (I have not yet had time to read the study to which he referred; that might clear up some of the vagueness.) And while he nodded to the notion of securing the border first, he didn’t harp on it, and people will rightly wonder how much emphasis and priority he really puts on that before everything else. Anything less than absolute emphasis and priority could sink him.
All that said, I was intrigued that he would go out on this limb so soon after rising in the opinion polls. It tells me that he’s confident in his chances (not that many people have ever doubted Gingrich’s confidence) — so confident that he’s already looking for ways to bring traditional GOP groups such as social conservatives as well as independents under the Gingrich tent.
That’s the kind of forward-thinking maneuver none of the other Romney alternatives, from Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry to Herman Cain, has been able to pull off. The coverage of and reaction to his immigration gambit may tell us whether Gingrich will succeed where they failed.
– By Kyle Wingfield