Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney take part in the GOP debate in Jacksonville,… (Matt Rourke / Associated…)
It didn’t take long for the animus between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich to erupt in the 19th GOP presidential debate Thursday night at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. The issue was illegal immigration, and the two are in something of a metaphorical death match in Florida with the fourth primary contest coming up Jan. 31.
Romney and Gingrich sparred over a radio ad by Romney that accuses Gingrich of calling Spanish the “language of the ghetto.” Gingrich denied he had denigrated Spanish and claimed Romney had taken him “totally out of context.”
The debate got heated when moderator Wolf Blitzer raised Romney’s claim that identity cards and an e-verify program would discourage illegal immigrants from trying to work here, and that many would eventually “self-deport.” Did Gingrich still stand by his accusation that Romney’s plan amounted to an “Obama-level fantasy.”
Gingrich said he agreed that “self-deporation will occur if you’re single and have only been here a short period of time.” But people who have been here many years — “grandmothers and grandfathers,” as Gingrich often puts it — will never leave their families, Gingrich said. Those people, he added, should be able to get residency, if they can find American families to sponsor them.
Blitzer asked Romney why he thinks the concept of self-deportation would work.
Romney said it would be a process that would take place “over time.”
“I don’t think anyone wants to go around deporting 11 million Americans, excuse me, illegal immigrants,” Romney replied, laying out his plan for identification cards and an e-verify system. “Let’s focus our attention on how to make legal immigration work and stop illegal immigration.”
Blitzer asked Gingrich to explain why he described Romney as the “most anti-immigrant candidate.”
Again, Gingrich raised the idea that illegal immigrants with roots here will simply never leave.
“They will end up in a church, which will declare them a sanctuary,” he said. “You have to be realistic in your indignation. I want to control the border. I want English to be the official language. I want to be bold but realistic.”
But Blitzer pressed him on his description of Romney: “Is he still the most anti-immigrant candidate?”
“Yes,” replied Gingrich, setting off what can only be described as a controlled tirade by Romney.
“That’s inexcusable,” Romney fumed. “My father was born in Mexico, my wife’s father was born in Wales. The idea that I am anti-immigrant is repulsive.”
He added that the description “is simply the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized American politics for too long.... Having a difference of opinion does not justify labeling people with highly charged epithets.”
Gingrich was unruffled: “Tell me the language, if you think it’s OK to deport grandfathers and grandmothers.”
"I am not running around rounding up people and deporting them," Romney said. “People who come legally get a work permit; those who don’t over time will self-deport."
"All I want to do,” retorted Gingrich, “is allow the grandmothers to be here legally with some rights to have residency but not citizenship, so that he or she can finish their life with dignity within the law.”
“Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers,” Romney said. “Our problem is 11 million people getting jobs that many Americans, legal immigrants, would like to have; it’s school kids in school districts that are having a hard time paying for; it’s people getting free healthcare because we’re required under the law to provide that healthcare. And the real concern is for people who want to come here legally. Let’s let legal immigrants come, let’s stop illegal immigration.”