Yesterday's Republican presidential debate in Washington focused on national security, so of course the candidates readily took the opportunity to dive into the dangers of illegal immigration. "An insecure border is a national security threat… we know that terrorists have come into this country by way of Mexico," Herman Cain said. "As the President of the United States," Rick Perry said, making a now outlandish proposition, "I will promise you one thing, that within 12 months of the inaugural, that border will be shut down, and it will be secure."
It was all the same tried and not-so-true language from the previous debates, but then things took an unexpected turn when the question was directed at Newt Gingrich, who departed the conservative safe space for a rare moment of humanity. "If you've come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home. Period," he said. "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."
The other candidates weren't too keen on the idea. Michele Bachmann instantly termed in amnesty, and the others joined in on the attack. "To say to the people who have come here illegally that now you're all going to get to stay or some large number are going to get to stay and become permanent residents of the United States, that will only encourage more people to do the same thing," said Mitt (actual first name Willard) Romney.
This campaign has largely been defined by candidates rushing over each other toward the base consensus, but Gingrich stood by his views when challenged last night. "I don't see any reason to punish somebody who came here at three years of age, but who wants to serve the United States of America," he said, expressing support for at least some of the provisions included in the DREAM Act.
Perry expressed a similar sympathetic take on undocumented workers at a debate in late September, but left out the specific commitments offered by Gingrich. Instead, Perry charged ahead recklessly and termed Republican voters "heartless." Gingrich framed his views in more positive terms. " 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 said. "And 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."
If GOP voters stay true to course, that heat will soon be coming Gingrich's way, at least based on Perry's immediate drop in the polls following his immigration deviation. And to be fair, Gingrich's campaign—more of a glorified book tour than electoral campaign—was headed nowhere even if he had turned in an inspired debate performance. Still, in a night where both Cain and Rick Santorum endorsed racial profiling Muslims, it was nice to see a Republican go against the racist grain.