How Catholic Is Newt Gingrich's Immigration Position?

Catholic convert running for president displays stance on illegal aliens that is close to the bishops' view.

Newt Gingrich speaks to reporters at the Union League Club in Manhattan Dec. 5, following a meeting with Donald Trump in New York City.
Newt Gingrich speaks to reporters at the Union League Club in Manhattan Dec. 5, following a meeting with Donald Trump in New York City. (photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich, the GOP presidential candidate and recent Catholic convert, is experiencing a jump in support — despite his views on what is a hot-button issue among Republicans.

During a televised debate, Gingrich staked out a position on immigration reform that distinguished him from his fellow GOP candidates: He advocated legislation designed to keep “families together.”

Although Gingrich’s stance on immigration has drawn a firestorm of criticism from his Republican rivals, he is the only GOP candidate to put forward a position on immigration that in its basic approach affords parallels to that of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy.

“He’s someone we could work with on this issue,” said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Appleby stressed that he was not endorsing Gingrich and that there remains a “gap in specifics” between what Gingrich proposes and the position of the U.S. bishops.

Appleby added, however, that the former speaker of the House is “moving in the right direction.”

“It is heartening,” Appleby said, “that one of the Republican candidates is talking about a humane solution and using the word ‘humane.’”

Gingrich made news when he came out during a recent GOP debate against deporting longtime illegal aliens and in favor of an approach that would allow a pathway to legal status.

“If you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out,” he said during the debate.

“I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century,” Gingrich added.

“Gingrich’s emphasis on keeping families together is right out of the bishops’ playbook,” said Appleby.

“When I saw that quote, I thought that this was a reflection of Newt’s being a Catholic,” said David DeCosse, who teaches Catholic social teaching at Santa Clara University in California and has written on immigration for America magazine. Like Appleby, DeCosse stressed that he wasn’t endorsing Gingrich.

The Field’s Reaction

Gingrich has also supported parts of the DREAM Act, which was designed to create a way for younger illegal immigrants who serve in the U.S. military or attend college and have a record of good conduct to become U.S. citizens.

For other illegal immigrants, Gingrich is proposing something less than full citizenship, but not ruling out citizenship either, if they will get in line and follow the rules.

“I am suggesting a certification of legality with no right to vote and no right to become an American citizen unless they go home and apply through the regular procedures back home and get in line behind everybody else who has obeyed the law and stayed back there,” he said at a recent event in Naples, Fla.

Still, conservatives — including the respected columnist Thomas Sowell, who wrote at National Review that Gingrich’s stance on immigration provides him with “more baggage that he needs to overcome” — have been quick to criticize.

GOP hopeful Mitt Romney said that Gingrich’s plan would make the U.S. a “magnet” for illegal immigration, while Michele Bachmann charged that Gingrich’s plan amounts to “amnesty,” a charge Gingrich quickly denied.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, the other Catholic in the GOP field, also suggested that Gingrich was advocating amnesty a few days after the debate in an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader.

“Do I believe what Newt is suggesting is amnesty? Well, even he said after the debate the other night that millions of people would be able to stay in this country as a result of this proposal,” Santorum was quoted as saying on an ABC news site. “I don’t know what you call amnesty. Does amnesty only mean full citizenship, or does it mean you are forgiven for your transgressions and you are allowed to stay here under some status? If that’s amnesty, then that’s clearly what Newt is suggesting.”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was once a favorite of conservatives in the Republican Party, fell in the polls after defending his state’s policy of providing in-state tuition for students brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

On MSNBC, the political talk-show host Joe Scarborough remarked that Gingrich had “just strapped on the same TNT that blew Rick Perry” by stating his position on immigration.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has supported in-state tuition for the children of illegal aliens, has not jumped into this fray. Ron Paul has not weighed in on the Gingrich controversy either, but he is against breaking up families by deportation and in favor of some status short of citizenship. He believes that the U.S. should get rid of what he regards as incentives for illegal immigration, including free hospital care and welfare benefits.

25-Year Wait

Although pleased by Gingrich’s overall stand on immigration, Appleby, of the U.S. bishops conference, says that there are some areas of disagreement between the bishops and Gingrich.

Appleby says that the 25-year residency period Gingrich stated as necessary before illegal immigrants can regularize their legal status is too long. The time lived in the U.S. should be at least five years, Appleby said, but not as long as Gingrich stipulated.

The bishops believe that before citizenship is granted, an illegal immigrant must meet certain requirements, including paying a fine, settlement of back taxes, good standing without any legal impediment and acquiring use of at least basic English. But, apparently unlike Gingrich, they do believe that a permanent intermediate status between being citizens and being illegal is unacceptable.

As for Gingrich’s insistence that to acquire citizenship an illegal immigrant must first go home and get in line, Appleby said that this could prove acceptable if it only entails crossing the border and returning. However, if this stipulation requires going back to an immigrant’s original home and starting the process there, that is asking too much.

Gingrich supports a guest-worker program that would allow workers to come to the U.S. legally and then return home when their work season ends. The U.S. bishops have opposed such a program because it can lead to abuse of workers. But Appleby said that the bishops might be willing to accept a guest-worker program if there are stringent protections for workers and it is part of a broader program of reform.

Catholic writer Russell Shaw, who is also not endorsing Gingrich, said that the bishops should welcome Gingrich’s views.

“If I were a wise and prudent bishop, I’d not get into a fight with Mr. Gingrich, but would instead say, ‘Thank God he is moving towards our position.’”

Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.