Newt Gingrich's Position on Immigration Could Lead to Backlash

During the last Republican primary debate, new GOP front-runner Newt Gingrich staked out a more moderate stance on immigration when he stated that he was open to allowing some immigrants who have established deep roots in their communities to remain in the country.

This position on immigration allows Gingrich to differentiate himself from the other candidates in the race. His stated views, however, would not be easy to implement as policy. Furthermore, while he would allow some immigrants to continue living in the country, his position would create a whole slew of problems that would make the immigration issue even more vexing than the status quo. Thus, Gingrich’s stance on immigration not only would fail to resolve this issue, but it would hurt his chances in the Republican primary among conservative activists who consider the opposition to any form of legalization for undocumented immigrants as a litmus test.

Although most Americans are mainly concerned about the state of the economy, a large number of Republicans, especially conservative activists among the Tea Party, are passionate about and strongly oppose any policy that would allow illegal immigrants to stay in the country. Since these staunch conservatives would play an important role in determining the Republican nominee, they have significant clout in shaping the GOP immigration policy. In order to gain traction with these voters, even candidates who were moderate on the issue in the past have reversed their position. For instance, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney voiced support for giving a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in 2007 and has now not only completely disavowed this position, but is also strongly opposed to such approach as a constructive way to deal with the problem. In Texas Governor Rick Perry’s case, his immigration policy, which provides in-state tuition for illegal immigrants who grow up in the state of Texas, has been radioactive among these activists. His campaign has been hurt by this policy.

Gingrich is no stranger to this immigration issue. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, he voted in favor of the 1986 law, which mirrors the policy that President Barack Obama advocates, in that it provided a pathway for illegal immigrants to later become citizens. During the debate, Gingrich stated “If you've been here 25 years and you've got three kids and two grand kids, 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.” 

Although he has been severely criticized by his opponents for embracing amnesty for illegal immigrants, Gingrich did set a high bar for determining who would be qualified to stay in the country. He went on to say that those who would be allowed to stay will be eligible for some form of legal residence; they will be not permitted, however, to ever become citizens. His current position is far more lenient than the policy espoused by the other candidates, but it is far to the right of the policy that he supported in 1986. In a party in which a large block of voters are so vehemently opposed to any form of legalization for illegal immigrants, Gingrich’s new stance coupled with his past support for the 1986 law would be highly damaging to his campaign in the Republican primary.

Gingrich’s position, however, raises many questions. It has been estimated that there are more than 10 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. in 2010. Among this group, how many would meet the criteria set by Gingrich? Those immigrants would presumably need to provide documents that would purport to show their eligibility. Other non-eligible immigrants would be incentivized to try to secure documents that might help them participate in the program. This quest for documents on the part of ineligible immigrants would create a cottage industry. As a result, many of these immigrants would be taken advantage of because they would be put in a vulnerable position. What would happen to the millions of immigrants who would not be qualified? Would they face deportation? More importantly, even those whose status would be changed would constitute a new group of second class residents. They would not enjoy the same rights and protections that are afforded to citizens and legal residents (they can become U.S. citizen after 5 years) by the laws of the country. 

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore