GUY RAZ, HOST:
Turning now to politics in this country, Newt Gingrich is getting plenty of attention today, thanks to his statements on immigration last night. He made them during the Republican debate on CNN. Gingrich has been moving up in the polls and last night, he broke with his fellow candidates by saying that some illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S.
As we hear now from NPR's Ted Robbins, the aftershocks of that statement show just how narrow the immigration debate has become.
TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Listen to what Newt Gingrich said last night.
NEWT GINGRICH: If you're here - you've come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home, period.
ROBBINS: That's the typical Republican line but keep listening.
GINGRICH: 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.
ROBBINS: That got a lot of pushback from Gingrich's fellow candidates and a lot of attention today. Did he make a mistake? Is he alienating the Republican base? But how radical is Gingrich's statement, really?
DORIS MEISSNER: This is a position that's consistent with what an important element in the Republican Party has believed and argued for, for a long time.
ROBBINS: Doris Meissner is with the bipartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington. She was also head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Clinton. Meissner says up until the last few years, Gingrich's was a widely held Republican view.
MEISSNER: By centrists, by people who have represented business and employer and more internationally-oriented views within the Republican Party.
ROBBINS: People like President George W. Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain, both of whom pushed legislation to legalize some undocumented immigrants and create a guest worker program. That effort failed as Republicans became focused on border security. That led to enforcement-only legislation in Congress and Republican-led state laws intended to crack down on illegal immigration; think Arizona, Alabama.
Candidate Mitt Romney sounded that note last night.
MITT ROMNEY: Secure the border. Turn off the magnets...
ROBBINS: And make sure people come to the country legally.
ROMNEY: But just saying that we're going to say to the people who've come here illegally that now you're all going to get to stay, or some large number are going to get to stay and become permanent residents of the United States, that will only encourage more people to do the same thing.
ROBBINS: That argument is based on what happened after Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to three million illegal immigrants in 1986 - a move, by the way, Gingrich supported while in Congress. Since then, many more people have come illegally. But in the last decade, the U.S. has also built some 700 miles of fencing, added roughly 20,000 Border Patrol agents and put in place drones, sensors and other technology. Fewer people are crossing the border illegally.
And the Obama administration is deporting record numbers of people already here. With those facts in mind, Gingrich seems to be taking a calculated step, talking not just about guns and fences, but families.
GINGRICH: As somebody who believes strongly in family, you're going to 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.
ROBBINS: Gingrich was not pressed on the specifics of his proposal. But Doris Meissner says, regardless, his remarks are shrewd politically.
MEISSNER: The Republican Party, in its very harsh and unyielding recent stance on illegal immigration, has alienated itself from the single-largest bloc of voters that are in play in the future in our political system. And that is Latinos, Hispanic voters.
ROBBINS: At the very least, Newt Gingrich is differentiating himself from his fellow Republican candidates. And he may help his party in the long-run, if not himself, by broadening the immigration issue, after several years of narrowing.
Ted Robbins, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.