Did Newt Gingrich just flip-flop on immigration?

Newt Gingrich has said that law-abiding, tax-paying illegal immigrant families should not be forcefully kicked out of the US. Now, he's emphasizing the get-tough part of his stance on immigration.

Erik Kellar/AP
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich greets supporters with his wife, Callista, at the Naples Hilton in Naples, Fla., Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. Gingrich was in the area to speak at a town hall meeting.

Did Newt Gingrich just flip-flop on immigration?

During Tuesday night’s GOP presidential debate, Gingrich got all compassionate-conservative on the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants – more compassionate than conservative, in fact, or so it seemed.

No talk of electrified fences or moats with alligators, as some of his Republican presidential rivals had offered. No promise to “shut down” the US-Mexico border the first day of his presidency (Rick Perry), or scary warnings that “terrorists have come into this country by way of Mexico” (Herman Cain).

IN PICTURES: Newt, now and then

Yes, Gingrich said, if somebody has recently come into the United States illegally and “has no ties to this country” then “they ought to go home.” (Which sort of sounded like someone having a pang of conscience about being an outlaw immigrant and voluntarily returning to their village south of the border.)

But then Gingrich added something big enough to drive a truck full of illegals through a hole in the fence at San Diego – or so his critics quickly said.

“If you've been here 25 years and you’ve got three kids and two grandkids, you've been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church,” he said,  “I don't think we're going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.”

But forcefully uprooting illegals and kicking them out is the default position for Gingrich’s presidential rivals (and for most Republican governors and lawmakers these days).

Within seconds, Michele Bachmann was charging Gingrich with advocating “amnesty” – and not just for the kind of long-time families he was describing but for all 11 million illegal immigrants in this country. Mitt Romney called Gingrich’s position “a magnet” for more illegals.

Bachmann later told PBS that Gingrich “probably has the most liberal position on illegal immigration of any of the candidates in the race."

Since then, other critics have spoken out.

“Newt did himself significant harm on immigration among caucus and primary voters,’’ tweeted Tim Albrecht, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Terry Branstad in Iowa – the state holding the first caucuses in January.

While in Congress, Gingrich voted for amnesty for undocumented immigrants in 1986 and for smaller, more specific amnesties throughout the 1990s, Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, which advocates tighter immigration controls, told the Associated Press. The organization gave Gingrich a "D" for his time in Congress.

Trying to keep his place as the current front-runner, Gingrich has been elaborating on his earlier statements – emphasizing the get-tougher part of his position.

“I am not for amnesty for anyone. I am not for a path to citizenship for anybody who got here illegally,” Gingrich said at a town hall event in Naples, Florida, Friday night. "I would have very, very stiff economic penalties for anyone who hires somebody who is not legally inside the system. I would be very tough."

Rather than amnesty, he said, "I am suggesting a certification of legality with no right to vote and no right to become an American citizen unless they go home and apply through the regular procedures back home and get in line behind everybody else who has obeyed the law and stayed back there."

Such explanations are unlikely to dampen the criticism.

Bachmann kept it up on Fox News Saturday by pointing to a 2004 letter to the Wall Street Journal in which Gingrich endorsed "paths to permanent residence to enable more workers to stay, assimilate, and become part of America." 

If he were to be nominated, Gingrich’s position on immigration probably would be OK with most voters in the general election. Getting through the far more conservative group of Republican primary election voters and caucus participants is another matter.

RECOMMENDED: Who said that? Match the Republican candidates with the quotes.

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