Newt Gingrich at Tampa Debate
Newt Gingrich came face-to-face with a very angry Republican voter at a campaign stop in Iowa on Tuesday. Reuters

An ascendant Republican presidential candidate breaks with party doctrine during a debate by suggesting a more lenient policy towards immigrants who entered the United States illegally, and is instantly lambasted by his rivals for the GOP nomination.

As went Rick Perry, so goes Newt Gingrich. Perry's meteoric rise began its to reverse when he steadfastly defended his decision to extend in-state tuition to some undocumented immigrants, parrying his critics by telling them, If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no reason than they've been brought there, by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart.

Gingrich, who has vaulted to the top of the polls in recent weeks, stepped into similar territory during the most recent Republican presidential debate. He proposed opening a path to legal status for some undocumented immigrants, then defended the stance by arguing that it was consistent with the GOP positioning itself as the party of the family.

I'm prepared to take the heat for saying, let's be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families, Gingrich said at the Nov. 22 debate.

The former Speaker of the House has since been on the defensive, rebutting criticisms that he is supporting amnesty for millions of immigrants, as Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., suggested, or that his policy would erect a magnet for undocumented immigrants, as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has charged. What was Gingrich really proposing? Here's the breakdown:

No Federal Overhaul

Gingrich cited the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act, an immigration bill he (and president Ronald Reagan) supported, as an example of the wrong way to approach immigration. The legislation barred employers from hiring undocumented immigrants and pledged to fortify security along the Mexican border. It also offered amnesty to some undocumented workers, the idea being to counterbalance heightened enforcement with relief for some immigrants. But the bill did not diminish the flow of undocumented immigrants into the country, and it is widely seen as a failure.

That has informed Gingrich's staunch opposition to comprehensive immigration reform legislation, which he has characterized as an effort by liberal politicians to lie to you once again, and to convince you that you ought to give amnesty to millions of people in return for a promise, which they will break again. He also denounced President George W. Bush's 2007 push for sweeping immigration reform.

Enforcement First

Instead, Gingrich has advocated an approach that begins with doubling down on enforcing current immigration law. Like the other GOP candidates, he has invoked the need to secure the border as his first priority. He has suggested deploying rapid response teams along the border and has endorsed using unmanned Predator drones as an alternative to a border fence.

Much of Gingrich's immigration plan concerns attracting legal immigrant workers to the United States, including loosening restrictions on visas for skilled workers or investors. He would regulate the flow of immigrants seeking work with a guest worker program modeled on a proposal by the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation. Immigrants would be issued temporary work permits in the form of smart cards containing their personal information. The work permits would not make immigrants eligible for citizenship.

Gingrich has said that the current system for issuing work permits is too rigid and argues that the Krieble plan would offer employers more flexibility. He has also criticized the existing mechanism for checking the status of workers, a federal program known as E-Verify, as ineffective. Under his plan, private companies would manage the system -- he has suggested credit card firms like Visa and Mastercard that have experience monitoring fraud -- and businesses who hire undocumented immigrants would suffer heavy fines.

A Path to Legality

Far more controverial is Gingrich's proposal to make some of the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States eligible for legal status. He has been careful to distinguish between legal status and citizenship, noting on his website that under no circumstance can a path to citizenship be created which would allow those who have broken the law to receive precedence over those who patiently waited to become residents and citizens via the legal process.

But Gingrich has made clear that something must be done about the millions of immigrants who entered the country illegally. He has supported offering citizenship to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children and later serve in the military, essentially endorsing a provision of the stalled DREAM Act.

With other immigrants, particularly those who have not broken the law and have strong family ties -- during the debate, Gingrich cited a hypothetical law-abiding family that has been here 25 years and has got three kids and two grandkids -- it gets trickier. Gingrich has proposed the establishment of citizens' review committees that would weigh individual cases, deciding who gets to stay and who gets deported based on guidelines handed down by Congress.

Parallel to Democrats

Gingrich has offered a number of requirements dictating who would be eligible, including the ability to support oneself without the help of government entitlement programs and the ability to purchase health care and pay a hefty fine. But the basic premise that some undocumented immigrants are enough a part of American society that they should be allowed to remain is similar to a policy recently handed down by the Obama administration. It has also earned Gingrich the rare praise of congressional Democrats.

In President Obama's and my vision of America, families who have been here for over 25 years, who have paid their taxes, who are integral parts of our communities and churches, should not be separated, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said. Even Newt Gingrich can agree with that.