Written by
Bob Rathgeber | Fort Myers News-Press
9:19 AM, Dec. 27, 2011

A series analyzing issues important to the Sunshine State.

When Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich recently suggested showing compassion toward some illegal immigrants, his GOP challengers went after him as if he were offering amnesty to al-Qaida.

This stands out as a microcosm of just how controversial the immigration issue is in the 2012 race for the presidency.

For the most part, Gingrich stands by himself. In a debate in late November, he said, “If you’ve been here for 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 are going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.”

Gingrich’s rivals said he was everything but a traitor.

Mitt Romney, who now trails the former House Speaker in most of the polls, said Gingrich’s proposal would encourage more illegal immigration.

Michele Bachmann said Gingrich has the wrong approach. “If I understood correctly, I think the Speaker just said that he would make 11 million people who are here illegally now legal,” she said.

“I don’t know what you call amnesty,” Rick Santorum said. “Does amnesty only mean full citizenship or does it mean you are forgiven for your transgressions and you are allowed to stay here under some status? If that’s amnesty then that’s clearly what Newt is suggesting.”

Hispanics, the fastest-growing voting group in the nation, could play a larger role in the 2012 elections than ever before. In 2008, 6.6 million Hispanics voted. That number could about double next year according to projections from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.

About 30 percent of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants who are adults have been here for 15 years or more, the center found. Almost two-thirds of them have been here for 10 years or more. The majority are from Latin America.

Gingrich said the tenets of his immigration plan are “control the border, English is the official language of the United States, and it’s baloney if anyone suggests that I favor amnesty for 11 million illegal immigrants.”

Gingrich contends his stance was simply “humane.”

“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,” he said. “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.”

If Gingrich were nominated and his immigration plan eventually implemented, the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington think tank, estimated that as many as 3.5 million people here now illegally could gain legal status.

Leonardo Garcia, the president and CEO of the Hispanic American Business Alliance in Fort Myers, said the complexity of the illegal immigration situation muddies the water.

“I believe that issue needs to be resolved with Washington moving forward with creating an opportunity for the illegal immigrants to become legal,” said Garcia, a native of the Dominican Republic who became a U.S. citizen in 1996. “This issue is not black and white.”

He said some of those who are illegal immigrants are awaiting legal status. “The system is very slow in processing cases,” Garcia said.

Garcia also said that he has no problem with border fences, as long they are not exclusive to the Mexican border.

“A border fence … if that is the solution to the problem … OK. But, if you do one border, you do all,” he said. “There is a kind of discrimination on Mexico if that is the only one. You have people leaving Canada. If you build one on the Canadian border, then I don’t have a problem on the Mexican border.”

If Gingrich’s immigration position sounds familiar, it is. It’s similar to that of the last two Republican nominees – George W. Bush in 2004 and John McCain in 2008. Bush advocated a temporary worker program that allowed undocumented immigrants to register and remain legally. McCain’s stance mirrored that of President Barack Obama’s position of allowing for a pathway for eventual citizenship.

Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry stand closest to Gingrich, although Romney’s has hardened over the years.

Romney now says the government should do nothing directly for those who are in the country without documentation and want to stay.

“I don’t believe in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from our country,” he has said. “The right course: Secure the border and then we can determine what’s the right way we can deal with the 11 million. And to make it as clear as I possibly can: Let those people apply just like everybody else that wants to come to this country. But they have to apply at the back of the line as opposed to jumping into the front because they’ve come here illegally.”

Like Gingrich, Romney is in favor of an employer verification system, known as e-verify.

Perry was hammered for taking what might be considered a compassionate position in his home state. He said that children of illegal immigrants in Texas should get the same in-state college tuition break as those who are children of legal residents. He said those who oppose his position “don’t have a heart.” He later retracted that statement.

“There is a way that, after we secure that border, that you can have a process in place for individuals who are law- abiding citizens who have done only one thing — as Newt says, 25 years ago or whatever that period of time was —that you can put something in place that basically continues to keep those families together,” Perry said.

Ron Paul also does not favor sending illegals home, but he also is not in favor of e-verify.

Bachmann, Santorum and Jon Huntsman are advocates of building a fence along the United States-Mexico border.

Bachmann has been the most vocal. “We must have an equal emphasis on border security and homeland security,” she said. “Among other things, a fence should be erected on every inch of the Mexican border.”