Newt Gingrich jolts the GOP on immigration

Father Tom Joyce CMF| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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Rick Perry had already come under fire from his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination for his tepid “compassion” for the undocumented immigrant. He has since retreat back to GOP nativist orthodoxy and is now campaigning with the immigrant-baiting sheriff of Maricopa County (AZ) Joe Arpaio. But it hasn’t done him much good and he continues to plummet from the lead in the anti-Mitt Romney parade.

A new leader has emerged in former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. And he seems even to be captivating the Evangelical voters of Iowa, despite his multiple marriages and admitted adultery. They like his smarts--he is an ex-historian like me--and his straight-forward talk of reviving the godly American civilization endangered by secularism and socialism. And he’s no flip-flopper like Mitt--or so it seems. The wonder is that he still fascinates conservatives despite the fact his “humane” position on immigration doesn't garp them. Yet some conservatives like Gingrich’s plan.

At the recent debate in Washington Gingrich very briefly laid out his path to legality, if not citizenship, for law-abiding, hard-working undocumented immigrants who had been in the country for 25 years and went to church. At the same times he advocated beefing up border enforcement with more fence, guards, and drones. Immediately his position was attacked by Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann as “amnesty” for 11 million and encouraging more “illegals” to come. Gingrich protested. Still, having broken with GOP orthodoxy, he has created space for some Republicans to speak more realistically about immigration reform.

Some prominent Republicans were dismayed by the harsh rhetoric of the candidates on immigration and feared that Hispanic voters would be loss to the GOP for generations.  Karl Rove had managed George W. Bush’s victories in Texas and for the presidency by siphoning off some Hispanic votes (as much as 40 percent) from the Democrats. Republicans don’t need to win the Hispanic vote to claim victory, but only to dig into it. But constant demonizing of the undocumented led to a nativist stereotyping of all Hispanics and to depreciation of their cultures and contributions of their communities to American life. Even the “legals” are made suspect and have to submit to indignities as to their place in American society. (The plight of Islamic immigrants and Americans were even worse because of the xenophobia resulting from 9/11.)

Gingrich astutely established his “humane” plan on moral and religious grounds. Many dismiss this as politics, but many Evangelicals – who are coming to like his other positions – were brought to think again about the issue of the eleven million undocumented in the country. Also he limits who would benefit – only long-term residents in the country, those without criminal record, taxpayers, heads of families and the steadily employed and church-goers. The Pew Hispanic Center tried to calculate how many would benefit by Gingrich's plan. They couldn’t calculate how those here 25 years, but those here 15 years, Pew estimates, would number 3.5 million or 35% of the adult undocumented and those only 10 years 4.7 million or 46%. This doesn’t include another million undocumented children.

Gingrich’s “humane” plan does not come close to the “comprehensive compassionate plan” urged by the U.S. bishops. But it realistically admits 11 million undocumented are not going to be deported and does turn the debate to concern for the immigrant family as the basis for reform. Also he sets out an important issue for immigration advocates who would want the details of any immigration reform to be more generous than restricting it to the long-term residents and to give them more than just being allowed to stay unmolested. Still Gingrich has force the GOP to step back from an absolutist exclusionary solution.