The Republican presidential candidates all vowed during Saturday night's GOP debate in Iowa to crack down on illegal immigration, but a split emerged over whether to deport all illegal immigrants already in the country.
Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry said they would not offer illegal immigrants any type of amnesty, but they didn't advocate mass deportations of undocumented foreign workers.
Those eligible for consideration would have to have entered the United States at least 25 years prior, have genuine ties to the community, be good citizens and have an American family sponsor them. Under the former House Speaker's plan citizenship wouldn't be on the table but, instead, those considered could gain residency after paying a penalty.
"I do not believe the people of the United States are going to send the police in to rip that kind of person out and ship them out of this country," Gingrich said.
"I think most of the workers who are here and have no ties to us should go home immediately," he said. "We should make deportation dramatically easier just as I think, frankly, we should make English the official language of government and have an effective guest-worker program with severe penalties for those employers who hire people illegally."
The United States has an estimated 11 million undocumented people within its borders.
A report by the Pew Hispanic Center released earlier this month, estimates unauthorized adult immigrants in the United States have lived in this country for at least 10 years — about 6.4 million in total — and nearly half are parents of minor children.
Only about 1.5 million illegal immigrants have been here for less than five years, according to the center’s report.
Some of Gingrich's opponents said his plan is a form of amnesty that would encourage more immigrants to come to the U.S. illegally.
The Pew Hispanic Center's analysis found that 35 percent of unauthorized adult immigrants have resided in the U.S. for 15 years or more, 28 percent for 10 to 14 years and 22 percent for 5 to 9 years and 15 percent for fewer than five years.
The share that has been in the country at least 15 years has more than doubled since 2000.
By contrast, the share adult immigrants who have lived in the country for less than five years has fallen by half during this period—from 32 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2010, part of that likely attributed to a sluggish U.S. economy.
The other candidates, including Mitt Romney said the focus should be on securing the border saying that providing any type of amnesty will make the United States a "magnet" for illegal immigration.
Under his plan, the estimated 11 million in the country illegally should have to report their status to the government and would be given a transition period to settle their affairs before returning home to get at the back of the line "with everybody else who wants to come here."
"I want to bring people into this country who have skill, experience and family here," Romney said.
"I do not want to do something that encourages another wave of illegal immigration."
He said his plan wouldn't show any favoritism for permanent residency or citizenship for "those that have come here illegally."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry agreed that "securing the border is the key," but he said that "any of these conversations we're having now are nothing more than intellectual discussions until we secure that border."
He suggested that the laws on the books be enforced and if that is done that there are going to be a "substantially smaller number of people we're going to have to make decisions about."
Perry spoke specifically to the Obama administration's lawsuit against Arizona over its stricter immigration laws.
"As President of the United States you won't see my Justice Department sue states like Arizona who are having their sovereign rights put in jeopardy," he said.
He accused the Obama administration of practicing a catch-and-release program of illegal immigrants — those who are caught but haven't committed violent acts are let go.
All of these arguments come in the face of recent numbers that the Obama administration deported a record number of illegal immigrants for the third straight year, according to figures released in October by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Of the 396,906 deportations from October 2010 through September, more than half of those sent back to their home countries had felony or misdemeanor convictions.
The annual total was about 4,000 more deportations than the record set in the previous year.
U.S. officials have said programs such as Secure Communities, which checks the immigration status of individuals fingerprinted at state and local jails, has helped to drive the increase.
In September, the Obama administration opted to keep the extra 1,200 National Guard troops on the U.S.-Mexico border through the end of the year — the price tag runs about $10 million a month.