(MANCHESTER, N.H.) — Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said on Sunday that the country is not “heartless” and should allow undocumented immigrants to remain here if they have already laid down roots.
“We are not going to go into those churches and those neighborhoods and tear apart those families. The American people aren’t heartless,” Gingrich said before a packed crowd at a Latino outreach event held at Don Quijote’s Mexican Restaurant in Manchester, N.H.
“We have to end the period of having people in the shadows,” he said. “It’s bad for the country, it’s bad for the people, it leads them to get excluded, it is dangerous. It means those that need help are afraid to show up and ask for it. So I want to find a path that gets us to a system where four or five years from now 99.99 percent of everybody in the United States is here legally and we’re comfortable with it.”
The immigration issue has mainly been relegated to the back seat in the New Hampshire GOP primary. But it was thrust out into the open at Gingrich’s Hispanic outreach event, which was picketed by Occupy protesters and at times turned contentious.
Gingrich has outlined the most moderate immigration stance of all the Republican presidential candidates. At a debate in Washington, D.C., in November, Gingrich said the government should not expel immigrants if they have been here for a quarter of a century, raising a family, paying taxes and obeying the law. He voiced support for granting those undocumented immigrants legal status, but not full citizenship, and for a temporary guest-worker program for undocumented individuals in the United States.
That stance drew widespread criticism from Gingrich’s GOP rivals, who have voiced more conservative approaches to the controversial issue. Front-runner Mitt Romney, who won Iowa and leads the polls in New Hampshire and South Carolina, said only days before the caucuses that he would veto the DREAM Act, a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for some undocumented children of immigrants who attend college or serve in the military.
“There are parts of it I like,” Gingrich said Sunday of the immigration measure, explaining that he supports granting a path to citizenship to young people who enlist in the military, but not to minors who attend college.
While some Latinos in Iowa and New Hampshire have recently said they will not vote for Romney due to his immigration position, the former Massachusetts governor has enjoyed a far better start to the GOP primary than Gingrich. Gingrich is coming off a disappointing fourth-place finish in last week’s Iowa caucuses, a dramatic fall for him after he surged to the top of the polls in December. But he brushed off concerns about his standing in the race during a media availability following the event.
“We have begun to set the stage for South Carolina and clearly we have begun to describe the gap between the Massachusetts moderate and the Reagan conservative,” Gingrich said, referring to Romney with the former moniker.
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