In a debate last week among Republican candidates seeking their party's nomination for president, potential voters witnessed a clarifying exchange among the candidates about immigration.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich caused quite a stir by saying, "I'm prepared to take the heat for saying let's be humane in enforcing the law without giving (undocumented immigrants) citizenship but finding a way to create legality so they are not separated from their families."
Gingrich's remarks were quickly dismissed by some GOP rivals as a form of amnesty that would create a magnet for ongoing illegal immigration into the United States. Many pundits believe that his remarks will seriously harm his status among core Republican caucus goers and primary voters.
We disagree on both counts. As voters become engaged with the complex issues surrounding immigration, we hope most will come to welcome the kind of moral leadership articulated by Gingrich on immigration during this most recent debate. Whatever his other advantages or shortfalls, on immigration, Gingrich has it right.
Gingrich's foray into this contentious topic demonstrated remarkable political courage. As the master strategist for the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the 1994 elections, Gingrich has a keen ear for what resonates with the American public. He knows the emotions that are wrapped around the cultural and economic impact of having an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in our country during a time of economic distress. He has seen how perceived softness on this issue hurt Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the polls. And he has seen how well a get-tough, enforcement-only approach has benefitted his rivals.
So it's not surprising that Gingrich actually takes a hard line with regard to border control and creating a system of employer enforcement of our immigration laws.
But as student of American history, he also knows the deep-rooted impulse of Americans to side with fairness and with family. He knows that America did not sit by idly when totalitarian regimes engaged in mass expulsion, and he knows it is unrealistic to believe that Americans would favor mass deportation in this country.
Although Gingrich's approach would include some deportation, it also provides a way for undocumented immigrants to square themselves with the law and come out of the shadows.
By thinking more like an American common lawyer than a European-style bureaucrat, Gingrich reaches for core principles and fair processes rather than a strict statute to guide who would stay and who would go.
"If you've come here recently and have no ties to this country you ought to go home. Period," he said. But he continued, "If you you've been here 25 years and have three kids, two grandkids, you've been paying taxes and obeying the law and you belong to a local church, I don't believe we're going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out. ... 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."
At the core of the debate regarding Gingrich-style proposals is the definition of amnesty. Gingrich understands that there is a significant difference between changing where one draws the line with regard to an administrative regulation about work eligibility and altering bedrock civil and criminal laws that deal with unquestionable moral harm.
Consequently, Gingrich argues (along with other leading conservatives like Matt Kibbe at FreedomWorks and Stephen Moore at the Wall Street Journal) that the United States should, after careful scrutiny, allow verifiable guest workers into our country — thereby satisfying the demands of legality — without necessarily creating a path to citizenship.
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It is encouraging to see most Republican presidential candidates embrace the concept of simpler and smarter immigration procedures for highly trained immigrants who can bring skills and innovation to our shores. It is encouraging to see that there is unanimity about securing our borders. But the biggest challenge in the immigration debate is how to deal with the millions of undocumented immigrants already within our borders. The moral courage of Gingrich to speak forcefully from principle to provide a vision for comprehensive and humane reform of our broken system is a very welcome development in this year's campaign, and we hope it will shape and inform the approach of the other candidates.