MIAMI — Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said Wednesday that rival Mitt Romney is living in an "Obama-level fantasy" world if he believes that stronger enforcement of the nation's laws will persuade illegal immigrants to leave the nation voluntarily, as Mr. Gingrich worked to curry favor with the state's 400,000 Hispanic Republican voters.
"I think you have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and [an] automatic $20 million a year [income] with no work to have some fantasy this far from reality," Mr. Gingrich said, taking shots at both the former Massachusetts governor's stance on immigration and his personal wealth. "For Romney to believe that somebody's grandmother is going to be so cut off she is going to self-deport — this is an Obama-level fantasy."
Mr. Gingrich, a former House speaker, said he supports a dramatically improved visa program as well as paths to citizenship for both the children of illegal immigrants who serve in the U.S. military and illegal immigrants who have been in the country at least 20 years.
When it was pointed out the majority of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living here came less than 20 years ago, Mr. Gingrich called for some kind of new guest-worker system that would allow the 11 million illegal immigrants to apply for a temporary employment permit.
"We can write a law that makes them eligible to apply for a guest-worker permit," he said.
With less than a week to go before the pivotal Florida presidential primary, the two GOP front-runners are campaigning in south Florida looking to make inroads with the state's Hispanic voters.
Mr. Gingrich kicked off his day here by appearing in a "Meet the Candidates" forum in Miami — sponsored by Univision, the nation's largest Spanish-language television network, and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce — where he faced a string of questions regarding his views on illegal immigration, U.S. relations with Cuba and his personal life.
Mr. Romney is scheduled to appear in a similar forum this afternoon and has taken the hardest line on the campaign trail against "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. In the debate in Tampa, Fla., on Monday, the former governor said he shared Mr. Gingrich's support for a scaled-back version of the "Dream Act," which carves out a citizenship exemption for people who serve in the military. Grilled on what he planned to do with other illegal immigrants, Mr. Romney said "self-deportation" was the answer, with illegal immigrants voluntarily deciding to return home.
"The answer is self-deportation, which is people decide that they can do better by going home because they can't find work here, because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work here," Mr. Romney said.
Mr. Gingrich, in his interview here Wednesday, said the response made him want to burst out in laughter.
"You are not going to get the country to agree to amnesty for 11 million, and Mitt Romney is not going to get the country to agree to kick out grandmothers and grandfathers," he said, arguing that former President George W. Bush and President Obama have failed to find a middle ground on the issue.
The Romney camp countered by painting Mr. Gingrich as a hypocrite, pointing to an instance in which a Gingrich campaign spokesman used the same language as Mr. Romney in explaining that, under the Georgian's immigration proposal, only a small percentage of current illegal aliens would be given the opportunity to stay.
"It's likely the vast majority of them would self-deport," spokesman R.C. Hammond said in an article in the Concord (N.H.) Monitor in November.
Mr. Gingrich also appeared to use the language himself in a 1994 article in the San Jose (Calif.) News, in which he said that if a person or his or her family is not eligible for Social Security or other government-run services, "I think you will find a great deal of self-deportation."
"Newt Gingrich is a failed leader who is desperately trying to prop up his sinking campaign," said Ryan Williams, a Romney spokesman.
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