Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum both took a hard line on illegal immigration in Thursday's debate in South Carolina, drawing a contrast with Newt Gingrich, who supports a limited path to legalization for some illegal immigrants who have lived in the country for decades.
In response to a question from an audience member about "amnesty," Gingrich said he thinks local community leaders should have the power to decide whether some illegal immigrants who have deep ties to the community can stay and be granted legal residency.
"Trying to deport grandmothers and grandfathers will never pass the Congress and would never be accepted by the American people," Gingrich said.
Santorum said he would "grieve" for elderly people who were deported but that no one should be granted legal status.
Romney said he wouldn't order the deportation of all 11 million illegal immigrants living in the country, but he also wouldn't let them apply for legal status while they're living in America.
The Republican presidential candidates have repeatedly been asked to address illegal immigration on the trail in South Carolina, which is home to a tough anti-illegal immigration law that drew a lawsuit from the federal government last year.
Last week, Romney was endorsed by Kris Kobach, an anti-illegal immigration activist. Kobach, a lawyer who is now state secretary of Kansas, has been behind dozens of state and local anti-illegal immigration laws introduced over the past five years, sometimes personally defending them against civil rights lawsuits. Kobach helped write a failed bill in Arizona last year that called for the creation of a separate class of birth certificates to be issued to the children of illegal immigrants in an effort to end birthright citizenship.
Gingrich has suggested that Romney's tough talk on immigration could help him scoop up votes in South Carolina but will hurt him in later states and in the general election.
"I can't wait for them to campaign in Florida," Gingrich said at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, according to Fox News. "Try to go into Miami with the battle cry, 'Everybody must go.' ... That is clearly going to come across in the immigrant community as a sign you have no sense of humanity for people."
Romney is running Spanish-language ads in Florida that don't mention immigration.
Although Hispanic voters are overwhelmingly Democratic, they have been key in delivering Republican victories in the past. George W. Bush captured 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, helping him beat out John Kerry. Four years later, John McCain captured only 31 percent of the Hispanic vote. Hispanic Republicans like New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez have publicly called on the Republican candidates to tone down their immigration rhetoric.
While all of the candidates praise legal immigration and the contributions of legal immigrants in debates, Santorum deviated a bit from that line while answering a question about illegal immigration from a voter last week.
Santorum, whose father and grandfather immigrated legally from Italy, said last week at Yesteryears restaurant in Ridgeway, a small town north of Columbia, that he believes some legal immigration should be temporarily slowed down.
"I have a problem with chain migration; I have a problem with lotteries," Santorum said on Jan. 11. (The State Department "diversity lottery" gives out 50,000 visas per year to people from countries with low levels of immigration to America—"chain migration" is one way to refer to U.S. citizens being allowed to apply for green cards for extended family members, such as siblings.)
"There's changes to the immigration system that we need—we should probably have temporarily a slowdown to get rid of this chain migration," he said.
A spokesman for Santorum did not answer a request from Yahoo News for more detail about Santorum's desire for a slowdown of legal immigration. At a town hall the following day, he didn't mention the issue.
In talking about reducing legal immigration, Santorum--intentionally or not--aligned himself with the group NumbersUSA, which is spending up to $150,000 in South Carolina to run TV ads that criticize the federal government for admitting what the group considers to be too many legal immigrants each year.
The Department of Justice sued South Carolina last October after its legislature passed a law that resembled Arizona's SB1070, which asks local police to question suspects about their immigration status. A federal judge blocked most of the key provisions of the law before it could go into effect.
Nikki Haley, the Republican governor of South Carolina, said at an event last week that she endorsed Romney in part because he said he supported the state's immigration law, but other candidates, including Gingrich, have also said they would order the Justice Department to drop its case against the law.
Like Alabama, which also passed a tough law targeting illegal immigrants this year, South Carolina doesn't actually have a large population of illegal immigrants. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that about 55,000 illegal immigrants live in the state of 4.5 million people.
Both legal and illegal immigration streams to America have fallen sharply since the recession began in 2008, even as state legislatures have increasingly passed immigration-related laws over the same period.
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