Gingrich, Romney take shots at each other on immigration policy

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Monday, Nov. 21, 2011.
AP Photo

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich may or may not have "stepped in it" (as Rick Perry might say) when he spoke out in favor of a relatively moderate position on immigration policy in Tuesday night's GOP presidential debate. Either way, he isn't backing down from his position -- and he seems intent on making immigration a headache for his main rival as well.

During Tuesday's CNN foreign policy debate, Gingrich said the U.S. should not break up families of immigrants who entered the United States illegally if they meet certain criteria. He acknowledged it was a risky position for a Republican and said he'd be willing to "take the heat" for it.

In response to Gingrich's remarks, Romney said America should not "have an amnesty system that says that people who come here illegally get to stay for the rest of their life in this country legally."

On Wednesday Gingrich went on the offensive, highlighting evidence that suggested Romney also has a relatively moderate stance on the issue. Gingrich tweeted a link to a video of Romney on NBC's "Meet the Press" in 2007. The clip shows Romney saying that those in the country illegally "should begin a process towards application for citizenship."

In his tweet, Gingrich asked, "So what's your position on citizenship for illegals again? (I oppose it.)"

Gingrich also emailed the link to the press and his supporters, charging that the "Meet the Press" clip "could explain why after the debate Tuesday night, his advisor -- after seven direct questions -- would not answer what he would do with the millions of illegal immigrants already here."

In fact, Gingrich's position is not far off from Romney's -- Gingrich just took the extra step of naming some criteria by which undocumented immigrants could be allowed to stay in the country.

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."

The full statement Romney gave on "Meet the Press," as the Romney camp later provided, doesn't sound too different:

"My own view is, consistent with what you saw in the Lowell Sun, that those people who had come here illegally and are in this country, the 12 million or so that are here illegally, should be able to sign up for permanent residency or citizenship, but they should not be given a special pathway, a special guarantee that all of them get to stay here for the rest of their lives merely by virtue of having come here illegally, and that, I think, is the great flaw in the final bill that came forward from the Senate."

Romney clarified his position on Wednesday in Iowa saying, "Those people who've come to the country illegally should not have a special path, should not have a special pathway that is preferable to those that stand in line in their home countries to be able to come to this country."

He said that what Gingrich was describing could be called it was amnesty, and that it was a "mistake" to try to say which groups of immigrants should be given amnesty.

"How about the people who've been here 20 years, how about 12 years, how about 10, five, three," he said. "How may children do you have to have to apply this principle?"

The response out of Iowa -- the first state to hold its presidential nominating contest -- suggests that Gingrich's remarks could hurt his new standing as a frontrunner.

Craig Robinson, a former Iowa Republican Party political director who runs, said, "Gingrich's stubbornness on this issue will make winning the Iowa caucuses much more difficult. The only thing that will be remembered in this debate is Gingrich's pro-amnesty position."

Tim Albrecht, communications director for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), tweeted: "Newt did himself significant harm tonight on immigration among caucus and primary voters...GOP-led Iowa House passed Dream Act 99-0 and in next election were wiped out up and down. Newt mis-stepped tonight."