NAPLES, Fla. - Speaking to an overflow crowd here this weekend, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich did not back down from his call for a "path to legality" for illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States for 25 years or more and who have established family and community ties. The former speaker of the House also scolded his GOP rivals for calling his proposal amnesty.
"I'm glad to take the heat," he said to a packed house of more than 700 people at a Hilton hotel. "But I want to take the heat for what I actually said and not what one of my friends, you know, decided they would distort."
Gingrich's proposed "path to legality" was seized on in Tuesday night's GOP candidate debate by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, both of whom charged Gingrich with supporting amnesty.
"I am not for amnesty for 11 million people. I'm actually not for amnesty for anyone," Gingrich told the audience Friday. "But I am for a path to legality for those people whose ties are so deeply into America that it would truly be tragic to try to rip their family apart."
Gingrich said that before the government addresses the more than 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country, it should take a number of steps, including securing the border, making English the official language, instituting a guest worker program, and simplifying the system for obtaining visas.
Then, Gingrich said, "I do think we ought to have an honest conversation about what are we going to do about the people who are already here.
"And the point I tried to make the other night was, I think for the vast majority of them, they should go home."
But he said he would allow exceptions for longtime residents with deep community ties and no criminal records: "I do think if you have somebody in your neighborhood who's been here 25 years and they belong to your church and they have two kids and three grandkids and they've been paying taxes and working hard that entire time, it's going to be very, very hard to get the American people to agree that we're going to tear up those families and expel them," Gingrich said.
He suggested that a local community board would decide which illegal immigrants would be allowed to stay, a model similar to one during World War II in which citizen judges decided who would be drafted into the war. "It gets to be a matter of judgment," he told reporters later. "Is somebody really a part of the fabric of the community, or are they not?"
Meanwhile, Bachmann continued her criticism of Gingrich, saying in an appearance on Fox News on Saturday that he has a "deep history of supporting amnesty." She referred to a 2004 letter co-signed by Gingrich and other policy makers and sent to the Wall Street Journal.
A section of the letter states, "President Bush has proposed a new legal path to work in the U.S. through a temporary worker program that will match willing workers with willing employers. We applaud the president and believe his approach holds great promise to reduce illegal immigration and establish a humane, orderly, and economically sensible approach to migration that will aid homeland security and free up border-security assets to focus on genuine threats.
"The president has shown courage by calling on Congress to place reality over rhetoric and recognize that those already working here outside the law are unlikely to leave. Congress can fulfill its role by establishing sufficient increases in legal immigration and paths to permanent residence to enable more workers to stay, assimilate, and become part of America."