When Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said in a November debate that undocumented immigrants who have deep roots in the United States should have a chance to legally work here, some jaws dropped.
His rivals questioned his conservative credentials. Observers wondered whether he had doomed his chances with Republican voters.
But a series of polls – including one by Fox News released Friday – on immigration shows that a majority of respondents, including registered Republican voters, think undocumented immigrants should have a shot at legalizing their status, as long as they meet certain criteria.
Some experts say the polls underscore that on the issue of immigration, at least, the GOP candidates are largely at odds with voters of their party.
“Gingrich at least put his finger on something – which is, we can play politics all we want but the reality is that these [undocumented] immigrants are integrating and becoming members of this society,” said Allert Grown-Gort, associate director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
GOP presidential candidate Rep. Michelle Bachmann, from Minnesota, assailed former House Speaker Gringrich for supporting “amnesty,” and has vowed that as president she would pursue deporting all the millions of undocumented immigrants.
But that, say many experts, is logistically impossible. And deporting -- let alone finding -- the millions of undocumented immigrants doesn’t ring as practical, or seem fair, to many Americans, Brown-Gort said.
“One of the ironies about immigration is that it’s the most human of stories,” he said. “Bachmann says she wants to send 11 million people back. What does 11 million look like?
"Well, it’s the entire state of Ohio," Brown-Gort said. "When you deport somebody, you’re not just deporting them, you’re affecting -- you’re doing damage to -- the community, to the schools, these are steps that should not be taken lightly.”
GOP rival and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney criticized Gingrich’s stance on immigration, saying that it would serve as a magnet for more illegal border-crossers.
"That will only encourage more people to do the same thing. People respond to incentives," Romney said. "If you could become a permanent resident of the United States by coming here illegally, you'll do so."
But in the Fox poll, 66 percent of the nearly 1,000 people surveyed nationally said there should be a path to citizenship if the a person meets requirements such as paying back taxes and learning English. That goes further than Gingrich's proposal, which just allows people who – in the example he gave – have lived here for 25 or more years to work here legally, but not be on a path to citizenship.
Nineteen percent of voters in the Fox poll thought all undocumented immigrants should be deported, and another 13 percent take the middle ground of a guest-worker program that would allow immigrants to remain in the United States for a limited time.
Regardless of political party affiliation, most respondents supported a path to legalization.
A majority of Republicans (57 percent), independents (68 percent) and Democrats (73 percent) said they supported giving undocumented immigrants a path to legalization.
Republicans were more likely than Democrats and independents to want the deportation of all undocumented immigrants. But even so, the percentage that did – 26 percent of Republicans, 14 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of independents – was dramatically smaller than those favoring giving a break to immigrants who meet certain criteria.
Another poll, by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a nonpartisan group in Washington, showed that 43 percent of respondents favor combining enforcement with a path to legalization. Another 24 percent thought the U.S. government should focus chiefly on a path to citizenship, and about 29 percent thought the focus should be just on enforcement.
Gingrich at least put his finger on something – which is, we can play politics all we want but the reality is that these [undocumented] immigrants are integrating and becoming members of this society.
The poll found that while Republican senior citizens preferred enforcement, younger Republicans favored combining enforcement with a path to legalization.
So why has the tenor of the comments on immigration in the GOP debates been decidedly hard-line when polls reflect a Republican voter preference for something softer?
“A lot of the GOP campaigns have been ill-advised by strategists who truly don’t understand the views of likely Republican voters on the issue of immigration,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a Washington, DC based advocacy group.
“The strategists have bought the argument of anti-immigrant restrictionists who in the past five, six years have penetrated the conservative movement.”
Aguilar, like other Latino conservatives, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, has pushed for the Republican Party to soften its take-no-prisoners tone on immigration, particularly if it is to win the support of Latino voters.
“They [restrictionists] have hijacked the issue of immigration in the Republican Party,” said Aguilar, who served in the George W. Bush Administration as chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship. “While they’re a small minority [within Republicans], they’re very vocal, they have a very well-organized political machine and they’re very PR [public relations] savvy. They have convinced the people they advise that the majority of Republicans are anti-immigrant.”
It’s not just polls that indicate divergent views on illegal immigration between voters and campaign talk on the issue, Aguilar says. State Republican legislators themselves have issued warnings about, or helped shelve or defeat, hard-line immigration bills that were introduced in many states.
Of the GOP candidates, Aguilar said, “the only two that understand the importance of the Hispanic voter and view of American Republicans are Gingrich and [Texas Gov. Rick] Perry.”
Perry, who supports some hard-line positions on immigration, came under fire by his fellow GOP rivals for having backed legislation in his state that allows undocumented students to attend public colleges at in-state tuition rates. Perry also does not support the construction of a fence along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, calling it impractical.
“Perry started coming down in the polls,” Aguilar said. “Restrictionists said it was because of his [moderate] comments on immigration, but he came down in the polls because of his poor performance in the debates.”
Contrary to the predictions of many observers that Gingrich would hurt his surging support after his comments on immigration, he has seen an uptick in polls, Aguilar said.
Aguilar, whose group has reached out to various candidates’ campaigns to offer advice on reaching Latino voters, said a Republican candidate would be wise to support “a balanced, common-sense approach to immigration that goes beyond enforcement-only.”
That is an approach, Aguilar said, that can win a Republican candidate support from a conservative base and Latinos, including those who are disillusioned by Obama.
A recent poll by Latino Decisions suggests that immigration reform is the top issue influencing the Latino vote in the lead-up to next year’s presidential race, despite an overall waning interest in the race.
The poll reported that 42 percent of Latino voters were concerned about immigration. Unemployment – which remains higher for Latinos than for the general population -- came in second, at a distant 23 percent.
Obama campaigned on a promise to reform immigration in his first year in office, a promise that is believed to have helped him win the majority of Latino votes. Increasingly, Latino voters who consider immigration a priority issue have expressed frustration over what they see as a failure by Obama to push harder for comprehensive immigration reform.
“[Republican candidates] can make inroads into a constituency that was key to Obama winning,” Aguilar said. “They need 40 percent of the Latino vote. Latinos are very upset with Obama. He pandered to them in a very crass way.”
If the Latino Decisions poll is any indication, swaying Latino voters will take work. Even though they are disillusioned, 54 percent Latinos still said in the poll that they were certain that they would vote for Obama in 2012.
Obama’s re-election campaign officials say that Republicans have been no friend to Latinos, and that they have been the obstacle to efforts to reform the immigration system.
“The choice for Hispanic Americans,” said campaign spokesperson Gabriela Domenzain, “is between a President who passed legislation that kept two million Latinos out of poverty, provided 150,000 additional Hispanic students with the means to go to college, and fought to pass comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act and a Republican field whose leading candidates oppose the DREAM Act and a path to citizenship for immigrants and would slash funding for education, Medicare, and Social Security.”
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org