US election 2012: Newt Gingrich risks angers Republican voters with immigration plan
NEWT Gingrich, the Republican presidential hopeful who has surged into the lead of national opinion polls, risked alienating the party's core voters on Tuesday night by proposing that millions of illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the US.
The former Speaker of the House of Representatives said “community boards” should be set up across America to judge which of the estimated 11 million people living there without permission should be deported, and which given the right to remain.
“If you've been here 25 years and you have 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're going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out,” he said during a debate on national security in Washington, DC.
Mr Gingrich's proposal was attacked by his rivals and risked enraging the conservative Tea Party movement, which was unforgiving when Governor Rick Perry of Texas said in a previous debate that anyone opposing subsidised education for the children of illegal immigrants was “heartless”.
Insisting he was “prepared to take the heat” for the plan, Mr Gingrich was criticised by Michelle Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, who said: “We need to move away from magnets, not offer more”.
Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who remains the favourite to win the nomination, said the policy would “only encourage more people to do the same thing”, adding: “People respond to incentives”.
A spokesman for Mr Romney, Eric Fehrnstrom, later sharpened his attack. “Mitt Romney is against amnesty, and Newt Gingrich made it very clear he was for amnesty,” he told reporters.
But during the debate Mr Romney wavered on the question of what he would do with people in Mr Gingrich's “extreme exception” of 25 years of law-abiding residency. “I'm not going to start drawing lines here,” he said.
R.C. Hammond, a spokesman for Mr Gingrich, said later that Republican voters would approve of a plan to “throw the thugs out and keep in the people that are good”. Dismissing concerns that opponents were likely to exploit the comments, he added: “The era of the 30-second attack ad is over”.
Several candidates attacked Barack Obama for pledging on Monday to veto attempts by Republicans to block about $500 billion (£310 billion) in cuts to military spending that were automatically triggered by the failure of the congressional “super committee” to strike a deal on reducing the US budget deficit.
Mr Perry called the cuts “totally and absolutely irresponsible”, suggesting that if he were an “honourable man”, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, who has said they will leave the US military a “hollow force”, should resign in protest.
“They're cutting programs that are cutting the capacity of America to defend itself,” said Mr Romney. However, Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman, dismissed the cuts as mere “nibbling”, repeating throughout the night that Americans “had better wake up” about its debt crisis.
Mr Obama also came under fire for his handling of the intensification of Iran's nuclear programme, with several candidates saying that they would support Israeli military strikes to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.
Mr Romney accused the President of “saying we're going to be friendly to our foes and we're going to be disrespectful to our friends”, adding: “If I'm president of the United States, my first foreign trip will be to Israel”. Almost all recent presidents have made Canada their first destination.
The candidates clashed over a string of other issues including what the US should do about the brutal crackdown on dissidents by the Syrian government, violence in Mexico and the retention of the Patriot Act, the controversial anti-terror law introduced by George W. Bush.
Mr Romney had a particularly sharp exchange with Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor and ambassador to China, over the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
Mr Romney said a plan by Mr Huntsman for the remaining 100,000 forces to be reduced to 10,000 would “put at risk the extraordinary investment of treasure and blood which has been sacrificed by the American military” and was opposed by the generals on the ground.
Mr Huntsman countered that “at the end of the day, the president of the United States is commander-in-chief” and that the generals had been wrong in the Vietnam war, prompting an angry Mr Romney to say that the proposal would see Pakistan “pulled into terror and become another launching point to go after America”.
In another extended encounter, Mrs Bachmann and Mr Perry battled over US relations with Pakistan after the assassination of Osama bin Laden, which was carried out on Pakistani soil without advanced notice in May.
Mr Perry said Pakistan, whose intelligence officials are suspected of shielding bin Laden, has “showed us time after time that they can't be trusted” and that all US aid to the country should cease. Mrs Bachmann described this as “highly naive”, adding that Pakistan was “too nuclear to fail” by falling out of American influence.
Mrs Bachmann also prompted suggestions that she had released information that may have been classified, and which she had obtained through her role on the House intelligence committee.
She said that 15 Pakistani nuclear sites were vulnerable to attack by jihadists and that “six attempts have already been made” on some of the sites – information that was not previously known.