Immigration a tough GOP sticking point

Enforcement vs. compassion divides Romney and his rivals

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Twice this year, Mitt Romney has turned to illegal immigration to try to blunt the rise of opponents in the Republican presidential field, including most recently on Tuesday, when he accused Newt Gingrich of supporting “amnesty.”

The former Massachusetts governor’s go-to move strikes to the heart of GOP orthodoxy when it comes to illegal immigration, with Mr. Romney positioning himself as the rule-of-law, attrition-through-enforcement candidate, while Mr. Gingrich is embracing some sort of legal status short of citizenship.

It’s an issue that has divided the GOP for a decade.

From George W. Bush’s embrace of legalization for illegal immigrants through 2008, when presidential nominee John McCain dropped his support of a broader immigration policy in favor of tough border security proposals, Republicans can’t seem to find common ground on immigration.

The issue is even more prickly this year, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and now Mr. Gingrich drawing criticism for arguing for what they see as a more compassionate approach to those living in the U.S. illegally.

“I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter-century,” Mr. Gingrich said in the debate on Tuesday. “And 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.”

Mr. Romney bluntly disagreed, saying, “Look, amnesty is a magnet.

“When we have had in the past programs that have said that if people who come here illegally are going to get to stay illegally for the rest of their life, that’s going to only encourage more people to come here illegally,” he said, referring to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act signed by President Reagan.

The Romney camp continued to pile on the criticism after the debate, when Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney spokesman, said Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney would agree that the “the 1986 amnesty act was a mistake.”

“The difference is [Mr. Gingrich] is willing to repeat that mistake by granting amnesty to the illegal immigrants of today,” Mr. Fehrnstrom said.

On Wednesday, the Democratic National Committee could barely contain its excitement over Mr. Romney’s remarks, providing a Web video and news release criticizing him for having “assumed the mantle as the most extreme, right-wing presidential candidate on the issue of immigration ever.”

Romney’s round them up and throw them out anti-immigrant views used to be the fare of far right-wing gadfly candidates like Tom Tancredo, but no more,” the DNC said, alluding to the former congressman from Colorado and vocal opponent of illegal immigration. “Romney once again went to the far right of every other Republican presidential candidate, refusing to agree with others on the stage that tearing apart families is wrong or that we shouldn’t implement an extreme and inhumane immigration policy.”

Polls show that the country remains deeply conflicted on the issue with Americans supporting a crackdown on illegal immigration, but also wanting a solution for those already here. Polls show Republicans are slightly more in favor of a crackdown.

Meanwhile, Hispanic voters who backed President Obama in 2008 appeared to have soured on him, activists say, partly because he hasn’t shown a commitment to legalization.

But during the past year, the administration has stepped up its campaign against states that have tried to clamp down on illegal immigration — including a Justice Department lawsuit filed Tuesday to halt Utah’s enforcement law.

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