Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Tuesday said the United States should not break up families of immigrants who entered the United States illegally and he was willing to "take the heat" from Republicans for deviating from his party's orthodoxy.
"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," Gingrich said at the CNN debate on foreign policy in Washington, near the White House.
"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," Gingrich said.
The former House speaker said recent immigrants should be sent home if they are found out, but "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."
Gingrich has been rising in the polls in recent weeks and those remarks are likely to draw more attention to his candidacy as he now sits at the front of the field with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. And they may not sit well with Republican primary voters who tend to be more conservative than the party as a whole.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was quick to label Gingrich's position an "amnesty" program, though Gingrich himself did not use that word.
"I don't agree that you would make 11 million workers legal, because that, in effect, is amnesty," Bachmann said.
When Gingrich responded to Bachmann by saying he "specifically did not say we'd make the 11 million people legal," she turned it back on him.
"If I understood correctly, I think the speaker just said that that would make 11 people -- 11 million people who are here illegally now legal," she said.
The Gingrich remarks brought to mind, when he said his fellow White House hopefuls are heartless for criticizing his support of providing government funds to help lower tuition rates for university students in his state who did not enter the United States legally.
Perry immediately backpedaled from his comments after facing sharp criticism for being "soft" on immigration. Perry had started to decline from his front-runner status before those comments, but his slide hastened after he made the remarks.
Gingrich has surpassed Romney in a number of national polls in recent days, in large part because of his strong debate performances. A poll released Tuesday from Quinnipiac University put Gingrich at 26 percent, atop the field. And he beat Romney 49 percent to 39 percent in a hypothetical head-to-head contest.
Gingrich is the latest Republican to challenge Romney's frontrunner status, but: Only 27 percent of Republicans said they have definitely made up their minds.