Debate Club

Newt Gingrich Plan Will Create Immigrant Underclass

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Yes and no. Yes because Republicans need to embrace a more compassionate approach. No because what Newt Gingrich offers is neither humane nor realistic. It is a half-baked scheme designed to curry favor with Latinos without actually helping them.

The former speaker of the House knows that no Republican will be hanging curtains in the White House if the party continues to demonize the fastest-growing segment of our country's electorate. This is why he previously supported sensible immigration reforms—and why he has engaged in serious and deliberate outreach to the Latino community.

Gingrich understands that former Gov. Mitt Romney is pursuing fool's gold with his hard-line about-face on immigration reform. And Gingrich sees an opening to present a kinder, gentler Republican face to Latino voters compared to the former Massachusetts governor and other immigration extremists such as Rep. Michelle Bachmann. Gingrich also sees an opportunity to engage a more pragmatic strain of Republicans—those who understand that Romney's and Bachmann's current fascination with mass deportation is pure fantasy.

[Read Ken Walsh's Washington: Gingrich Faces Backlash From the Right on Immigration.]

So Gingrich's goal is smart for a general election Republican candidate—damage control with minorities plus outreach to educated independents. But the strategy is degrading and doomed to fail because he is heeding the advice of misguided Latino Republican strategists who suggest that Republicans' Latino problem is one of tone, not substance. Beating undocumented immigrants with a heavy stick but talking sweet while you do it simply isn't going to impress Latino voters.

And make no mistake, the few details we can glean from Gingrich's proposal reveal a program heavy on sticks and light on carrots. For starters, his idea contemplates "citizens review" committees that would make decisions about who does and does not deserve legal status. Without providing explicit criteria, he suggests favorable dispensation by these local committees would be available only to people with overwhelming reasons to stay in the country, pointing to people who have been here for 20 or 25 years. This is a tiny fraction of the undocumented immigrants living here today.

What's more, those few who could presumably pass this immigrant fitness test would be barred from ever pursuing U.S. citizenship or receiving any federal benefits. And they would have to demonstrate employment income sufficient to pay for private health insurance, pay a $5,000 fine, and would lose their residency status if they lose their job.

[Read U.S. News's Debate Club: Should the United States build a fence on its southern border?]

In short, Gingrich would create a legally exploitable class of workers who are beholden to employers and pitted against low-skilled, low-income U.S. workers. And it would make their existence in the United States purely transactional, creating no incentive to become part of the community. Germany tried this approach with immigrants from Turkey and the Arab world, creating a permanently angry underclass of third-generation non-Germans.

That's not the American way. Conservatives who fear that Latinos won't assimilate—despite abundant evidence that they are—should fear this plan for a permanent underclass. Moderates who want a solution should see this as another distraction from serious legislating. If Gingrich is now the progressive flank of the Republican Party on this issue, then the party's devolution to the rabidly anti-immigrant Know-Nothings of yesteryear is now complete.

Marshall Fitz

About Marshall Fitz Director of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress

Tags
immigration reform

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