In last night's Republican debate, Newt Gingrich fell into the compassion trap on the issue of what to do with the 11 million undocumented people who currently live in the U.S.
During a discussion of illegal immigration led by moderator Wolf Blitzer, Gingrich — who Blitzer pointed out voted in favor of so-called “amnesty” legislation in the past — the latest frontrunner for the nomination said clearly that Republicans need to show a little compassion to illegal immigrant families who’ve been living in this country for decades.
It would be worth spending some time talking about Gingrich's entire answer and how very little compassion he's actually demonstrating in this area, but for now, I'd like to focus on Romney's response. Of course he's aware that right now Gingrich is the only thing standing between him and the nomination - so he immediately went on the attack crying "amnesty!" (something that is sure to rile up the Republican base).
But just what would Romney do about those 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S.? A reporter went there with one of his staff after the debate and what he got was classic Romney.
I followed up by asking Fehrnstrom whether Romney believed in deporting those immigrants who are already here illegally.
“He doesn’t believe in granting them amnesty,” Fehrnstrom responded.
That started a back and forth exchange worthy of Abbott and Costello, as Fehrnstrom kept continuing to drive the "no amnesty" point home, and I tried to get more details.
I followed up again, asking what "no amnesty" would mean for the people already here.
“Well, first, you have to get turn off the magnets to get them to stop coming.”
Again, I asked about those already here.
“He would not grant them amnesty," Fehrnstrom said.
"But what would he do with them?" I asked.
He reiterated, "He would not grant them amnesty."
I asked again, "But what would he do?"
“I just told you, he’s not going to grant them amnesty," he said.
Again, I said, “That’s not an answer, that’s telling me what he won’t do. What would he do?
“He would not grant them amnesty," he repeated.
Finally, after I asked the question for a seventh time, Fehrnstrom responded by emphasizing employer enforcement as a way to get illegal immigrants to leave through attrition.
“Well, if you cut off their employment, if they can’t get work, if they can’t get benefits like in state tuition, they will leave," he said.
I asked if that would take care of all of the illegal immigrants, and he said, “Enough of them would leave that it wouldn’t be as big of a problem as it is today.”
After 7 tries - he still didn't get an answer. That's because Romney and his team know that the federal government isn't going to institute some massive roundup of undocumented people and ship them out of the country. If anyone can't imagine why that would be inhumane - not to mention costly and a serious problem for employers all over the country who depend on cheap labor - then they're not paying attention. None of the Republican candidates would do that - including Romney - its just that they're not willing to admit it.
The truth is that undocumented people are a convenient foil for Republicans in a couple of ways. As long as they're forced to live in the shadows, they will be cheap fodder for employers who want to exploit them. And they're also great bait to throw to the nativists who fear the "brown" in our midst.
That's why all of the Republican candidates make such a big deal about their claims that before anything else can get done about illegal immigration - we need to completely secure the border with Mexico. That's something that is impossible to do and so they know that if they have their way - they can keep this issue alive in perpetuity.
Its also why we need to re-elect President Obama and give him enough Democrats in Congress to finally get the job done on immigration reform.