Did Newt Gingrich really propose a general amnesty in this week’s foreign policy debate?  Or does his plan have more to do with general-election strategy than replacing a decade of Republican rhetoric on the issue of immigration?  My column for The Fiscal Times today looks carefully at what Gingrich actually said during the debate, and also what the problems would still be with his proposal:

First, consider how Gingrich framed the quoted statement above, to which the candidates and activists reacted.  “So I think you’ve got to deal with this as a comprehensive approach,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “that starts with controlling the border….” In other words, Gingrich didn’t propose anything that would replace or subordinate securing the border as the first step in any immigration reform.

What happens once we secure the borders to the 11 million illegals inside the country? Gingrich’s plan calls for discretion in the application of deportation, not a blanket forgiveness of illegal status, as was the case with the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act, which Gingrich has called a mistake. Former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, writing in the National Review Online, called Gingrich’s position “common sense” not amnesty and noted that it would not even require a change in the law to implement.

In other words, Gingrich still wants to wait on any other policy changes until the border gets secured.  In that, his position is no different than any of the other Republicans in the field — and that’s going to take a long time to accomplish, whether we’re talking about a physical wall or a high-tech barrier system that can shut down the flow of border jumpers.  Once the threat of a new flood of illegal immigration gets eliminated, something that never happened with Simpson-Mazzoli in the mid-1980s, then we can take our time in dealing with the illegal immigrants remaining in the US.

That’s not to say that Gingrich’s further suggestions on policy don’t need some work:

His suggestion that local boards make decisions on immigration status would create a serious question about equal treatment and could turn the process into a legal nightmare. The obvious next question is: What would be the cutoff point for establishing oneself in a community – 25 years? Twenty?  Fifteen?  Five?  Or will length of community membership be in the eye of the bureaucratic beholder, local boards or ICE (U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement)?

His promotion of the Krieble Foundation’s “red card” proposal as a modern bracero program also has its issues, as Mark Krikorian pointed out in a National Review blog, The old bracero program admitted only men, which eliminated the issue of so-called “anchor babies,” children born of illegal immigrants who automatically get U.S. citizenship and greatly complicate immigration-law enforcement. Helen Krieble, who controls the public-policy foundation, herself opposes birthright citizenship, but that change would have to be a prerequisite for such a program to work within the context of secured borders and the elimination of illegal immigration – and it would require a constitutional amendment to redefine the concept of “natural-born” to eliminate anchor babies. That could take years, if such an amendment could pass at all.

Before anyone signs on to a Gingrich plan on immigration, we’d need to know how he proposes to address these issues, and what his standards would be for declaring the border secured enough to warrant moving onto Phase II.  Still, his proposal is not significantly different from the immigration approach from most of the Republican field, and as last month’s Pew poll showed, solidly in the mainstream of Republican voters.  The main difference is one of tone, which strongly suggests that Gingrich wants to attract Hispanic voters by assuring them that the post-border-control phase of enforcement won’t consist of harsh, inflexible measures that refuse to consider extenuating circumstances.

Will Republican primary voters appreciate the strategy and the nuance?  Fox News asked Karl Rove about the impact of the issue on the election, and Rove says that Gingrich’s “practical” approach might very well be problematic for Gingrich:

The statement from Michael Reagan might take some of the sting out of the criticism coming Gingrich’s way, but only if conservatives don’t recall how unhappy they were at the time of Simpson-Mazzoli, having correctly predicted that Congress would do nothing to secure the border. If Gingrich hopes to win a general election by setting a different (and more realistic) tone on immigration enforcement, he’ll have to hope that taking the risk during the primary on that tone will win him more support than he loses — and we’ll see how that plays out in December.

On a related note, Gary Gross takes a look at whether Mitt Romney is really as tough on illegal immigration as he claims.

Update: William Jacobson wonders whether Gingrich laid a clever trap for Romney:

First, Romney has been in favor of a pathway to citizenship for illegals, which is more than Newt proposed at the debate which was limited to deportation policy. Romney ran to the right, but it was not credible. This reminded everyone of Romney’s “core” weakness.

Second, and equally important, Romney has no answer on deportation policy. This resulted in the ”Abbott and Costello” routine I highlighted yesterday, in which Romney’s spokesperson could not or would not say that Romney would deport everyone here illegally, even those brought here as young children. While attacking the humanitarian standards on deportation policy proposed by Newt, Romney had no alternative. Not a good showing.

In the end, Newt was shown to be someone willing to make hard choices even if it cost him votes and to do so with realism. Romney was shown to be just the opposite.

It dont’ know if Newt set a trap. But the Romney campaign found itself stuck, either way. Newt comes across looking presidential, Romney comes across looking like a politician.

And quickly on the heels of that, Greg Hengler reminds us that Michele Bachmann hasn’t been terribly consistent on this point either:

HARRIS: A quick 30-second rebuttal on the specific question. The fence is built, the border is under control. What do you do with 11.5 million people who are here without documents and with U.S.- born children?

BACHMANN: Well, that’s right. And again, it is sequential, and it depends upon where they live, how long they have been here, if they have a criminal record. All of those things have to be taken into place.

Doesn’t that sound exactly like Gingrich’s position?