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Stewart J. Lawrence

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Newt Gingrich's Immigration Gambit: Is He Crazy Like a Fox?

Posted: 11/26/11 03:05 PM ET

Was Newt Gingrich crazy to suggest that the United States needed a more "humane" immigration policy? Crazy like a fox, perhaps. Gingrich's gambit wasn't a Rick Perry-style stumble or gaffe: it was a cleverly calculated maneuver. Already dominating Mitt Romney among Tea Party conservatives, he decided that a highly visible move to the center on an issue that is not likely to decide the 2012 election could score him points with GOP voters who wonder if he's as "electable" as Romney.

Many Tea party conservatives, Newt reasons, know that he's more conservative than Romney, and won't let the immigration issue alone sway their votes. After all, he's already thrown them plenty of "red meat" on Obamacare, Iran, and other bellwether issues. At the same time, by suggesting that he's able to reach out to Latino voters in the general election, and has an actual immigration plan to compete with Obama's, he could well win over many moderates who are otherwise still stuck on Mitt.

An actual look at the plan proposed by Gingrich is suggestive of just how much fresh thinking he's done on immigration, though, arguably, he actually cribbed a healthy chunk of his proposal from the so-called "red card" plan developed by Helen Kriebel, executive director of the center-right foundation that bears her name.

Gingrich, like Kriebel, suggests that America's 11 million illegal immigrants aren't all cut from the same cloth and shouldn't be treated in the same way. Some immigrants, essentially the "long-stayers" who've spent 25 or more years in the country, often married with homes and businesses, might be placed on a path to permanent residency, and granted what's known as a "green card," while many others might be permitted to stay and work, but would have to return home after a set contract period. Still others, essentially the most recently arrived, including many day laborers, usually men without families, would simply be deported.

Two aspects of the plan are especially compelling. First, studies have shown that many illegal immigrants have no intention of settling in the United States, and would likely return home anyway, once they had earned sufficient income. Many, in fact, have done that in past years, sometimes returning to the US again after a hiatus, but sometimes not. And their numbers are dwindling in any event. The idea, often propagated by the left, that all immigrants come to the US to stay permanently is largely a myth - but a powerful one. It justifies a "mass amnesty" plan that allows Democrats the opportunity to mobilize a prospective pool of new voters, while portraying conservatives as simply hostile to Latino aspirations

Second, the Kriebel-Gingrich plan neatly separates the GOP from a strictly negative, "party of no" approach to immigration based on the policy of "enforcement only" and "mass deportation" backed by the GOP's "restrictionist" far-right. Gingrich certainly isn't saying "no" to enforcement; in fact, he backs continued efforts to enhance border security and even promises to "seal the border" by 2014. However, his plan focuses more on the positive elements of immigration that Republicans dating back to Ronald Reagan have emphasized: economic growth, family values, and cultural enrichment leading to assimilation. Gingrich wants immigrants to learn English and to become naturalized US citizens, which a high percentage, depending on the immigrant group, fail to do. Many also don't register to vote. Gingrich's plan would create more incentives for that to happen.

Gingrich's plan, in effect creates two tracks for legal status - one leading to citizenship, the other not. Critics could well argue that he's relegating non-citizenship tracked immigrants to "second-class status," as they couldn't get residency, and their children born in the US wouldn't automatically become US citizens. But what Gingrich is doing is so rare in the immigration debate: making distinctions between different types of immigrants, based on their economic and family ties, and their relative contributions to the national interest, and not just treating legalization or deportation as an "all-or-nothing" proposition. Already some national Latino groups are praising Gingrich's courage for standing up to the "nativist" far-right on immigration.

Predictably, none of that has kept Gingrich's GOP rivals, including Romney and Michele Bachmann from attacking his plan as an "amnesty" pure and simple. But Gingrich is counting on some measure of reason to prevail. If you do the actual math, only about 3-4 million illegal immigrants - about a third of those currently here - would get on a track towards citizenship. Probably an equal number would be forced to return home. That could leave another 3 million who qualify for the proposed "red cards."

Gingrich also has a little surprise in store for Romney: His campaign has begun circulating a 2007 "Meet the Press" interview in which the former Massachusetts governor called for the very amnesty that he's now accusing Gingrich of supporting. Which means the next time the two get back to debating, watch for Gingrich to suggest that he's not only more consistent and tougher than Romney on illegal immigration - thereby, reassuring the right - but also more thoughtful and solution-oriented, thereby wooing party moderates.

Gingrich may be many things, not all of them good, but politically inept or foolhardy surely isn't one of them. The next national and state-level GOP polls, including one in ultra-conservative Iowa where Gingrich recently seized a commanding lead, are due out Monday. Those results will be the first good test of the wisdom of Gingrich's daringly played campaign maneuver, and as good an indication as any of his political fortunes in 2012. If Gingrich "survives," which now appears likely, it could well cripple Romney, leaving the former House speaker better positioned than ever to win the nomination.