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Gingrich’s immigrant proposal draws fire

Conservative backlash over support for 'red card’

By Matt Viser and Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / November 24, 2011
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WASHINGTON - Influential conservatives in early-voting states sharply criticized Newt Gingrich yesterday for declaring that some illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country legally, a stance that could imperil his new position atop national polls and as a chief alternative to Mitt Romney.

Some conservatives predicted that Gingrich’s break from Republican orthodoxy could derail his campaign, much as it did for Rick Perry, who sank in the polls after he faced a conservative backlash over his positions on illegal immigration.

“This is a very dangerous area for him to be headed into with only 40 days to go,’’ said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party. “Yeah, he was on his rise, but this is something that could take the air out of his balloon.’’

Others, however, said Gingrich showed courage by offering a plan that would give illegal immigrants who have been in the country for a generation a chance to work here legally, without becoming citizens.

President Reagan “would’ve supported probably the Newt Gingrich position on immigration,’’ Reagan’s son, Michael, said yesterday on Fox News. “My father never would have broken up a family to try and make, in fact, a point on immigration. And so he would have applauded Newt Gingrich on that.’’

The polarized reaction illustrated some of the divisions in the Republican Party, which is split between business-minded Republicans who want to give the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants a pathway to legalization, and Tea Party activists and hard-line conservatives, who favor deportation.

In a debate on Tuesday night, Gingrich wandered right into that highly charged divide. Portraying himself as a “compassionate conservative,’’ he said illegal immigrants who have deep roots in the United States should not be deported.

“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,’’ Gingrich said.

Gingrich promoted a “red card’’ proposal developed by the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation, a conservative think tank in Denver.

The plan seeks to break the political deadlock over whether to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants by splitting them into two groups. Those seeking citizenship would be put on one track, while the “vast majority’’ who are seeking work only would be issued “red cards’’ that require them to return to their country of origin at the end of their employment.

Representative Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican, Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks, and Stephen Moore of the Wall Street Journal are among those who have praised the red card idea as a workable solution to illegal immigration.

“It absolutely isn’t amnesty,’’ said Helen E. Krieble, founder and president of the Krieble Foundation. “There’s no amnesty involved. And it’s not about citizenship or green cards or any of those things, which are clearly the federal government’s job.’’

“It gives anybody who is working in the US illegally and has never committed a crime an opportunity to leave the borders, go through the process, and come back legally in one week,’’ Krieble said.

But conservatives - particularly in early states such as Iowa and South Carolina, where Gingrich needs to perform well - said any position that doesn’t crack down on illegal immigrants could haunt Gingrich less than six weeks before the nominating contests begin.

“Newt’s comments will be toxic in the caucus and primary process,’’ said Tim Albrecht, a GOP strategist who is the communications director for Governor Terry Branstad of Iowa.

“Even Republicans who agree with Newt on this issue will have second thoughts after the onslaught of television ads and mailers that tear him apart,’’ Albrecht said. “While not impossible, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to find success on caucus night as a result.’’

Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican whose endorsement has been hotly courted by the presidential candidates, was among the most prominent voices to criticize Gingrich on immigration.

“When you give people even a promise that they can stay in the country after they’re here illegally you become more of a magnet, and it is a form of amnesty, and more people will come in counting on that,’’ he said yesterday, according to Radio Iowa.

Rick Beltram, a former chairman of the Spartanburg County Republican Party in South Carolina, said Gingrich’s comments would hurt him in that state, as well.

“The conservative voter down here does not want any latitude at all as far as any immigration rule,’’ said Beltram, a Romney supporter. “I understand South Carolina to know that what Newt said last night is not going to play well with a group that he’s trying to befriend.’’

Romney was among those hoping to stoke the concerns.

During a swing through Iowa yesterday, he said Gingrich had “offered a new doorway to amnesty,’’ and said that illegal immigrants “should not be given a special deal or a special accelerated right to become a permanent resident or citizen.’’

Allen Olson, who stepped down as president of the Columbia Tea Party in South Carolina to endorse Gingrich in September, said he hopes Republicans will distinguish between amnesty programs and Gingrich’s proposal to give immigrant workers a “red card’’ that stops short of citizenship.

“I’ve got a few people asking questions,’’ Olson said. “I’ve tried to reiterate that it’s not amnesty he’s offering; it’s residency. . . . I think once the whole story gets out, he’ll be fine.’’

The Gingrich campaign responded to the controversy by pointing to a 2007 interview on “Meet The Press,’’ in which Romney said illegal immigrants should be allowed to apply for citizenship but should not get any special preferences.

Yesterday, Romney reiterated that he does not believe in giving preferences to illegal immigrants.

“My view is people who have waited in line patiently to come to this country legally should be ahead in line,’’ he said in Iowa. “And those who come here illegally should not be given a special deal or a special accelerated right to become a permanent resident or citizen.’’

Krieble said she was dismayed by the harsh response to Gingrich’s plan, which she called a “decent, honorable American approach’’ to illegal immigration.

“The idea that people are going to come down on a candidate for looking for solutions is a very interesting - and bad - thing for the political process,’’ she said. “If we don’t solve this problem, shame on all of us.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com. Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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