Explainer: Is Mitt Romney the 'Most Anti-Immigrant' Republican?

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Of all the early primary states, Florida is the one where immigration policy matters most. It's an issue so important to state voters that it kicked off Thursday's debate, leading to a heated exchange between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney about what constitutes "anti-immigrant" policy.

Is it actively supporting an aggressive deportation policy? Is it refusing any path to amnesty for illegal immigrants? Gingrich branded Romney "anti-immigrant" for doing the latter: the former Speaker of the House said he'd taken heat from Romney for approving of an amnesty process for illegal immigrants who'd been in the country over a certain length time.

Romney called Gingrich's charge "repulsive" and "inexcusable."

"You can say that we disagree on certain policies, but to say that enforcing the U.S. law to protect our borders, to welcome people here legally, to expand legal immigration...that that's somehow anti-immigrant is simply the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized American politics too long."

For Gingrich to call Romney the most "anti-immigrant" is obvious hyperbole: being anti-amnesty for illegal immigrants is far from being anti-immigrant, and one might argue that Romney's position is in fact more gentle than some of his opponents on the stage Thursday.

Where are Paul & Santorum?

Rick Santorum, for instance, is totally against amnesty of any sort for any illegal immigrant—that would be unfair to the millions of people who have immigrated or are attempting to do so legally, he says. He's also for deporting anyone found working in the United States illegally. Santorum frames his position with the rule of law, stressing stronger border security and tougher sanctions for employers who hire illegal immigrants. "A country that respects you is a country that lives by the laws that they have," he said in Thursday's debate, "And the first act when they come to this country, is to disobey a law, it's not a particularly welcome way to enter this country."

Ron Paul, too, opposes amnesty for illegals and in fact goes a few steps further, proposing to end birthright citizenship and welfare programs—"taps" that the candidate says, if left open, will continue to incentivize illegal immigration.

Romney less aggressive

Contrary to what Newt Gingrich says, Mitt Romney's illegal immigration policy is more forgiving than either advocated by Rick Santorum or Ron Paul. Romney would let the market solve the problem: legal immigrants get a work permit; illegal immigrants do not; and without a work permit, those here illegally would soon self-deport for lack of employment.

Expecting illegal immigrants to self-deport is decidedly non-aggressive. Romney has also suggested having illegal immigrants register with the federal government, which will then dole out temporary work visas to some and likely deport others—also less aggressive than the policies of Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.

Newt's nuance on DREAM

All of these policies offer less wiggle room than the one laid out by Newt Gingrich, who can also claim the most nuanced strategy.

Citizen review boards would approve residency for illegal immigrants, but only those who have been here for a certain amount of time (25 years is the number Newt likes to kick around), have ties to the community, belong to a church, have family in the United States, etc. Then there are a few more hoops to jump through: they need to be sponsored by an American family; they need to be able to prove that they can afford private health insurance and support themselves without the assistance of Social Security or other entitlement programs; they need to become proficient in English; and they need to pay $5,000 to close the deal.

The end result is not citizenship, but legal residency.

Gingrich also indulges his inner sci-fi buff (moon colony, anyone?) by proposing biometric worker ID cards to replace the current E-verify system used by employers.

Then there's his DREAM Act-esque policy of offering illegal immigrants who came to the country as minors with their parents, and not of their own volition, a path to citizenship or residency that goes through the military. Young non-citizens who serve in the armed forces would have a chance to become citizens or permanent residents—but unlike the DREAM Act, the parents would not be considered for naturalization.

It's politics, not policy

On illegal immigration, Newt Gingrich is to the left of his Republican opponents; and there are candidates who are tougher and more to the right on this issue than Mitt Romney. None of this is to say that any of the candidates are actually "anti-immigrant," clearly a misnomer that conflates illegal immigrants with all immigrants. But the term pops in debates and TV ads, it's soundbite-ready, and it's a big club to wield in a state like Florida

So Gingrich uses it. The former Speaker naming Romney the "most anti-immigrant" candidate has more to do with Romney's polling than with his policy: Gingrich has nothing to gain from going after Rick Santorum or Ron Paul, and everything from frying bigger fish.