After the debate, Mitt Romney's campaign team was fully trained on Newt Gingrich's immigration comments. President Romney, said spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom, would "turn off the magnets." Gingrich wouldn't. There was a sense of deja vu about an issue that had brought down one anti-Romney, and could drag down another.
It was a bit much. Here's a lightly edited transcript of what Gingrich said and what opponents tried to nail him on.
GINGRICH: If you're here -- if you've come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home. period. 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.
BACHMANN: Well, I don't agree that you would make 11 million workers legal, because that, in effect, is amnesty. And I also don't agree that you would give the DREAM Act on a federal level. And those are two things that I believe that the speaker had been for, and he can speak for himself.
Yes, this is Gingrich coming in from the left.
GINGRICH: Well, I mean, two things, first of all, in the DREAM Act, the one part that I like is the one which allows people who came here with their parents to join the U.S. military, which they could have done if they were back home, and if they serve on it with the U.S. military to acquire citizenship, which is something any foreigner can do. And I don't see any reason to punish somebody who came here at three years of age, but who wants to serve the United States of America. I specifically did not say we'd make the 11 million people legal. I do suggest if you go back to your district, and you find people who have been here 25 years and have two generations of family and have been paying taxes and are in a local church, as somebody who believes strongly in family, you'll have a hard time explaining why that particular subset is being broken up and forced to leave, given the fact that they've been law-abiding citizens for 25 years.
BACHMANN: If I understood correctly, I think the speaker just said that that would make 11 people -- 11 million people who are here illegally now legal. That's really the issue that we're dealing with. And also, it would be the DREAM Act, the federal DREAM Act, which would offer taxpayer-subsidized benefits to illegal aliens. We need to move away from magnets, not offer more.
She's still right: This is a partial endorsement of DREAM.
ROMNEY: Look, amnesty is a magnet. What when we have had in the past, programs that have said that if people who come here illegally are going to get to stay illegally for the rest of their life, that's going to only encourage more people to come here illegally. The right course for our immigration system is to say we welcome people who want to come here legally. We're going to have a system that makes that easier and more transparent. But to make sure we're able to bring in the best and brightest -- and, by the way, I agree with the speaker in terms of -- I'd staple a green card to the diploma of anybody who's got a degree of math, science, a Masters degree, Ph.D. We want those brains in our country. But in order to bring people in legally we've got to stop illegal immigration. That means turning off the magnets of amnesty, in-state tuition for illegal aliens, employers that knowingly hire people that have come here illegally.
GINGRICH: I do not believe that the people of the United States are going to take people who have been here a quarter century, who have children and grandchildren, who are members of the community, who may have done something 25 years ago, separate them from their families, and expel them. I do believe if you've been here recently and have no ties to the U.S., we should deport you. I do believe we should control the border. I do believe we should have very severe penalties for employers, but I would urge all of you to look at the Krieble Foundation Plan. 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. And 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.
"I'm prepared to take the heat" -- he really is saying the sort of thing that got Rick Perry in trouble. But the policy is materially different. These are earned benefits he's talking about, not benefits for kids whose parents flouted immigration law. It's defining amnesty down, way down, to say that's what Gingrich is offering. Even Mitt Romney once spoke highly of an idea like this.
In a November 2005 interview with the Globe, Romney described immigration proposals by McCain and others as “quite different” from amnesty, because they required illegal immigrants to register with the government, work for years, pay taxes, not take public benefits, and pay a fine before applying for citizenship.
“That’s very different than amnesty, where you literally say, ‘OK, everybody here gets to stay,”‘ Romney said in the interview. “It’s saying you could work your way into becoming a legal resident of the country by working here without taking benefits and then applying and then paying a fine.” ... Romney also said in the interview that it was not “practical or economic for the country” to deport the estimated 12 million immigrants living in the US illegally. “These people contribute in many cases to our economy and to our society,” he said.
It's just a tricky piece of turf from which to fire at Newt.