Can GOP voters stomach a presidential candidate who talks about undocumented immigrants without calling them "illegals"?
Can the tea party base that's driving the Republican party handle a presidential hopeful who acknowledges the impossibility of deporting every one of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, and who voices anything beyond an enforcement-only approach on immigration?
Such are the questions the Republican party has been grappling with in the days since Newt Gingrich, the GOP's most recent frontrunner, broke away from the pack during CNN's national security debate last Wednesday and uttered a fairly startling set of words on immigration.
"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 on Wednesday. "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."
In the current immigration debate, where anything besides a "secure the borders" agenda gets slammed as reviled "amnesty" by immigration restrictionists, the backlash was immediate, but Gingrich refused to be cowed the way Rick Perry was when he was attacked for defending an in-state tuition bill for undocumented immigrants he'd backed in Texas. On Friday, Gingrich defended his remarks at a town hall in Florida.
"I am not for amnesty for anyone. I am not for a path to citizenship for anybody who got here illegally," he said, The Hill reported. "But I am for a path to legality for those people whose ties run so deeply in America that it would truly be a tragedy to try and rip their family apart."
In a field full of anti-immigration hardliners, Gingrich's sophisticated tonal shift marked the first real departure this election season away from the fear-mongering tactics and demagoguery that's become all but a prerequisite for GOP candidates talking immigration these days. And in doing so, Gingrich dared remind his party of days gone by, when even conservatives had enough political space to back legalization proposals. His remarks were a reminder of how far the right has moved on immigration, and how twisted the immigration debate has become for both parties. It's too soon to say, but Gingrich's remarks could be a sign that Republicans are ready to heed growing calls from within their own party to temper the anti-immigrant rhetoric and stop alienating Latino voters.
It was Ronald Reagan, after all, who signed the most recent amnesty 25 years ago which allowed nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants to gain legal status. And it was just a few years ago when Sen. John McCain backed the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform with immigrant rights champions like the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, only to turn his back on both in recent years. The open racism of anti-immigrant campaigns in last year's midterm elections, and the bitter defeat of the DREAM Act last December, when even original sponsors of the bill like Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett voted against the narrow legalization bill for a set of undocumented immigrant youth, showed how far right the party had moved on immigration.
And Mitt Romney, who many consider the likely GOP nominee, has followed the tide. On Wednesday night Romney advisor and spokesperson Eric Ferhnstrom told the Washington Examiner Romney was pushing a hard right "attrition through enforcement" platform. ""You turn off the magnets, no in state tuition, no benefits of any kind, no employment," Ferhnstrom said. "You put in place an employment verification system with penalties for employers that hire illegals, that will shut off access to the job market, and they will self retreat. They will go to their native countries."
What's notable where Gingrich is concerned is his very clear tonal shift. Gingrich was willing to recognize immigrants as members of U.S. communities, as people whose presence sustains their families, as people whose work contributes to the economy. But more than that, it's the fact that Gingrich was willing to acknowledge a practical reality that the hard right of the GOP is currently unwilling to address--it's not just impossible to deport every undocumented immigrant in the country, it's also unwise.
It's this new tone that helps obscure the nuts and bolts of Gingrich's actual policy platform, which has been criticized roundly by both immigration advocates and restrictionists. Gingrich's proposed "red card program," put forth by the conservative Krieble Foundation, calls for giving the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country a literal red card that would grant them work permits and permanent residency but no citizenship. Under Krieble's Red Card Solution, children of this class of immigrants would not be granted birthright citizenship, which is currently an automatic right afforded to anyone born in the country. Immigration restrictionists have called it, predictably, "amnesty." Immigrant rights advocates say that the program would create a second class citizenry who are granted legal status but none of the rights and privileges that come with it.
For now, Gingrich is forcing Republican voters to grapple with the question of whether their party can nominate someone who dares to see immigrants as human beings.
After all, as Gingrich said Wednesday night, "I don't see how the -- 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."