Today, at a GOP candidate forum hosted by the Spanish-language television network Univision, Newt Gingrich reiterated his plan to create a path to residency for illegal immigrants who have lived in the country for at least 20 years. He also criticized his competitor, Mitt Romney, who recently suggested illegal immigrants would self-deport for their own benefit. Gingrich painted the suggestion as absurd and claimed Romney lacks concern for the “humanity” of those who’ve lived in the United States. Washington Wire reports the money quote, which also cleverly links Romney to the out-of-touch Barack Obama:

“You have to live to in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatic $20 million a year income for no work to have a fantasy this far from reality,” Mr. Gingrich said. “This is an Obama-level fantasy… He certainly shows no concern for the humanity of people who are already here.”

Oh, how the presidential race has changed in just a few short months! Remember when conservative pundits and the public skewered Rick Perry for his positions on immigration and, above all, for his remark that those who oppose in-state tuition for illegal immigrants are “heartless“?  Later, Newt Gingrich began to highlight the specifics of his plans to tackle the illegal immigration problem … and, lo and behold, the principles upon which those plans were based weren’t that different than the principles that had guided Rick Perry’s thinking.

In other words, when it comes to illegal immigration, Gingrich, like Perry, starts with respect for the personhood of immigrants, whether they entered the country legally or illegally, and seeks to implement policies that respect reality. In Perry, those positions were regarded as some kind of squishy conservative weakness. In Gingrich, they’re viewed as pragmatic and even palatable.

The question of what to do about the millions of immigrants who live in the country illegally is a thorny one. “Solutions” that absolutely respect the rule of law — like mass deportation — are impractical and largely unenforceable, while “solutions” that seek to integrate illegal immigrants into society for the mutual benefit of the immigrants and society inevitably weaken the rule of law one way or another. After all, every “solution” that accepts as a foundation that immigrants can enter the country illegally and remain here — regardless of whether they’re eventually allowed to become citizens — weakens the rule of law.

That’s why the candidates have understandably emphasized the need to secure the borders. That is unquestionably the first step to mitigate the problem of illegal immigration in the future. The process to immigrate here legally also desperately needs to be reformed.

Meantime, it’s interesting to observe the way the emphases of the candidates change according to their audiences. Gingrich definitely wants the vote of Miami’s large Cuban population, don’t you think?