Rep. King denounces Gingrich immigration plan as 'amnesty'

Influential congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) said Wednesday that presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's immigration plan was a "form of amnesty" and that he disagreed with it, adding to the chorus of critics from the right.

In Tuesday's GOP foreign policy debate, Gingrich said he would support an immigration policy that would allow illegal immigrants who had lived in the United States for a long time, obeyed the law, and paid their taxes to become permanent residents.

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“I do not believe that the people of the United States are going to take people who’ve been here for a quarter of a century … [and] separate them from their families and expel them,” Gingrich said. “I do believe we should control the border. I do believe we should have very severe penalties.”

He went on to say that he believed his policy to be the "humane" one.

"I don't see how the — 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."

His plan was quickly denounced by rivals Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, who described the plan as a "magnet" that would attract more illegal immigration. The comments could prove particularly damaging in Iowa, where a strong conservative base feels passionately about immigration issues.

Emblematic of that was King's comments to Iowa Public Television on Wednesday.

“I think if Speaker Gingrich had that to do over again, he might couch his language a little differently at a minimum. I wouldn’t agree with him on that policy,” King said. “I think that when you give people even a promise that they can stay in the country after they’re here illegally you become more of a magnet and it is a form of amnesty and more people will come in counting on that.”

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King has been a vocal critic of so-called "amnesty" programs, and indicated that if he decided to endorse a candidate before the Jan. 3 caucus, Gingrich had hurt his chances.

“That piece is something that concerns me because the rule of law is one of the essential pillars of American exceptionalism,” King said. "If we let the rule of law be eroded and if we allow people to be rewarded for breaking the law and, by the way, these people probably had false identification, they were working illegally. They maybe just didn’t get arrested in a quarter century.”

But Gingrich has stood by his remarks, arguing that his vision was carefully considered and thoughtful.

Campaign spokesman RC Hammond said after the debate last night that "Republicans, given a choice between deporting someone who is a thug, a criminal, a member of a gang, and someone who has been in a community and been a good neighbor, can make a much better decision for the community."

Hammond also called the Romney campaign a "weathervane," arguing that Romney had previously been on other sides of the immigration issue.

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