Erik Kellar, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich greets supporters with his wife, Callista, at the Naples Hilton in Naples, Fla., Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. Gingrich was in the area to speak at a town hall meeting.
NAPLES, Fla. — Speaking to a standing room-only crowd in Naples on Friday, presidential candidate Newt Gingrich detailed his views on immigration, just days after breaking with what has become a Republican hard line on the topic.
"I do not believe you can pass comprehensive legislation," Gingrich said to nearly 1,000 people gathered at the Naples Hilton.
The event, which was moved from another location to the hotel to accommodate more people, was so crowded that some people left when they found out that they would have to listen to him from an adjacent room.
Recent polls have shown the former house speaker at or near the top of the Republican presidential field, along with Mitt Romney. During a televised debate Tuesday, some Republicans and pundits thought Gingrich may have risked that status when he said he favored pathways to legal status for illegal immigrants who have lived peaceful, law-abiding, taxpaying lives in the United States for many years.
Other Republican candidates were quick to condemn his remarks. But his ideas didn't seem to alienate the folks in Naples — the crowd was enthusiastic with his appearance and wildly applauded many of his remarks, including his outline on how to handle illegal immigration in the U.S.
"It's an extremely difficult question," said Patrick Moody, a 57-year-old Baptist minister from West Palm Beach who said he will likely vote for him in the important Florida primary. "He's got a measured, realistic view of the situation. His views make sense."
Gingrich promised that if elected, he would "control the border" by Jan. 1, 2014. He also declared that he would require an American history test in order to become a citizen and make English the nation's official language.
"You can't sustain a civilization if you can't talk to each other," he said to applause.
He stressed that he wants to make it "simpler and easier" for people to obtain legal visas, especially for science, technology and mathematics professionals.
"I am for an importation of talent," he said.
People who are criminals or "undesirable" — for instance, gang members — should be swiftly deported, he said.
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He said he favors a "World War II model of the selective service program" to decide on who gets to stay in the country, adding that "25 years and family and total legality," would be a good guideline — although those people would not have the right to citizenship or the ability to vote.
"I think the vast majority (of illegal immigrants) will go home and should go home," he said.
Gingrich said his opponents' criticism of his statements has been incorrect and unfair.
"I have not suggested amnesty for 11 million people," he said. "I am for a path to legality for those people whose ties are so deeply into America that it would truly be tragic to rip their family apart."
Gingrich is scheduled Saturday to sign copies of his book in Naples.