Romney: Illegal Immigrants Who Want a Green Card Must First Return Home

Mitt Romney said Friday that if elected president he would make illegal immigrants return to their home country in order to get a green card, in an apparent challenge to Newt Gingrich's statement that he would let some illegal immigrants with deep-rooted ties to their community stay.

The former Massachusetts governor, who has watched Gingrich surge ahead of him in the polls in recent weeks, issued one of his most definitive statements on illegal immigration during a town hall meeting in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He said people in the U.S. illegally should not be treated with "favoritism" compared with those who have used the legal process to apply for entry and residency.

"For those who have come here illegally, they might have a transition time to allow them to set their affairs in order. And then go back home and get in line with everybody else. And if they get in line and they apply to become a citizen and get a green card, they will be treated like everybody else," Romney said. "They start in the back of the line, not at the front of the line."

Though Romney appears to be taking a firmer stance on the issue than Gingrich, the statement does not represent a direct contradiction of the former House speaker's plan.

Gingrich, after stating in a recent debate that he would allow some illegal immigrants to stay in the country, has not advocated for providing those families with green cards.

Rather, he says some of those individuals could get a "red card" allowing them to be legal, but not giving them a path to citizenship. He has cited a plan from the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation as his model.

Gingrich says he's in favor of "deporting all recent unattached illegals," but wants a "local citizen panel" to consider whether law-abiding, taxpaying illegal immigrants who have been here 25 years or more "and have family and community" should be allowed to stay.

Neither candidate appears to be pushing for forcible deportation of every single illegal immigrant.

Romney stressed Friday that he has no interest in going "across the country" to "round people up," describing that as "too big a task." But he said illegal immigrants who want a green card would have to go home and "get in line."