Never let it be said that Newt Gingrich fears thinking out of the box. The former Speaker has spent the last few decades offering a dizzying variety of policy innovations – some mainstream, and others, well, a little more exotic. Prior to last Tuesday night’s GOP debate, Gingrich’s main policy vulnerability came from his endorsement of an individual mandate for health-care reform during the HillaryCare debate in the early 1990s – a position he has since abandoned and Barack Obama has embraced.
That deviation from will now take a back seat for Republican voters after Gingrich’s surprising comments on immigration enforcement. During the debate, Gingrich offered the following guideline to his approach to the 11 million illegal immigrants estimated to be living in the US:
“If you're here -- if you've come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home. Period.” he said. “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.”
This opened the floodgates for other Republicans, and for conservative activists on immigration, to erupt in outrage. Michele Bachmann, who got the opportunity to follow Gingrich on this question, accused him of supporting amnesty for all. Mitt Romney took Gingrich to task for setting up another “magnet” for even more illegal immigration. Rick Perry, whose fall from grace began with an ill-advised riposte that conservatives who opposed his state-level DREAM Act, giving tuition breaks to children of illegals in Texas, echoed Romney’s attack and insisted that the U.S. had to focus on securing the border.
So has Gingrich, previously a conservative icon, become a Beltway-addled moderate, as some Republicans fear? Not exactly – but that’s not to say that the entire Gingrich’s plan holds up under close scrutiny, either.
First, consider how Gingrich framed the quoted statement above, to which the candidates and activists reacted. “So I think you've got to deal with this as a comprehensive approach,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “that starts with controlling the border….” In other words, Gingrich didn’t propose anything that would replace or subordinate securing the border as the first step in any immigration reform.
What happens once we secure the borders to the 11 million illegals inside the country? Gingrich’s plan calls for discretion in the application of deportation, not a blanket forgiveness of illegal status, as was the case with the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act, which Gingrich has called a mistake. Former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, writing in the National Review Online, called Gingrich’s position “common sense” not amnesty and noted that it would not even require a change in the law to implement.
Many illegals will leave on their own if employer sanctions take away their work, as some have already done in this period of economic stagnation, and prosecutors would prefer to focus deportation efforts on those who are a risk to our communities rather than those who contribute to them. Differentiating between the two would not be terribly difficult, and certainly we could find ways to do so in a just and expeditious manner – once we could be assured that more illegals won’t flood the country as a result.
Furthermore, despite the immediate reaction from the Republican field, there is considerable nuance within the party about how to address illegal immigration. A Pew poll in October showed that 42 percent of Americans in general favor an approach that balances between border and law enforcement and a path to legalization for those already in the country vs. 36 percent for the enforcement-only model. Among Republicans, enforcement only gets support from 50 percent, but 36 percent support a more balanced approach. Since Gingrich espouses a border-first policy, his proposal would seem to fall somewhere in the middle.
Certainly, the Gingrich plan has its flaws. His suggestion that local boards make decisions on immigration status would create a serious question about equal treatment and could turn the process into a legal nightmare. The obvious next question is: What would be the cutoff point for establishing oneself in a community – 25 years? Twenty? Fifteen? Five? Or will length of community membership be in the eye of the bureaucratic beholder, local boards or ICE (U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement)?
His promotion of the Krieble Foundation’s “red card” proposal as a modern bracero program also has its issues, as Mark Krikorian pointed out in a National Review blog, The old bracero program admitted only men, which eliminated the issue of so-called “anchor babies,” children born of illegal immigrants who automatically get U.S. citizenship and greatly complicate immigration-law enforcement. Helen Krieble, who controls the public-policy foundation, herself opposes birthright citizenship, but that change would have to be a prerequisite for such a program to work within the context of secured borders and the elimination of illegal immigration – and it would require a constitutional amendment to redefine the concept of “natural-born” to eliminate anchor babies. That could take years, if such an amendment could pass at all.
However, to some extent that puts the cart before the horse. Before we get to boards and “red card” programs, everyone agrees we have to secure the border and enforce regulations that keep employers from hiring illegal immigrants. Gingrich’s proposal addresses what we do after those critical goals have been accomplished, not what to do in place of them – and he’s talking about that with an eye to attracting Hispanic voters back to the GOP. If Republicans can assure these voters that they will take a reasonable approach to those who have lived in the U.S. long enough to put down significant roots -- after we ensure that we won’t get flooded with a new wave of illegal immigration -- that bloc might be tempted to part from Obama in November 2012.
Gingrich needs to improve the details of his plan, but he’s thinking strategically about how to make the mainstream Republican view on immigration enforcement attractive to a wider constituency. Republicans would do well to hear him out and engage him on the weak points rather than dismiss the Gingrich plan out of hand as another version of amnesty.