GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich defended his immigration stance Friday, claiming that he was "not for amnesty."
“I am not for amnesty for anyone. I am not for a path to citizenship for anybody who got here illegally,” Gingrich said at a town hall event in Naples, Florida according to media reports.
“But I am for a path to legality for those people whose ties run so deeply in America that it would truly be a tragedy to try and rip their family apart," said the former House Speaker.
Gingrich has been under fire from some anti-illegal immigration groups since last Tuesday's GOP debate where he spoke out against deporting many illegal immigrant families.
During Friday’s town hall, Gingrich said that if elected he would make securing the border a priority and would support efforts to make English the country's official language.
He said he would also establish a guest-worker program to allow migrants to work in the U.S. But under such a program, businesses which hired undocumented workers would be hit with fines.
"I would have very, very stiff economic penalties for anyone who hires somebody who is not legally inside the system," Gingrich vowed.
At last Tuesday’s GOP debate, Gingrich said that he supported efforts to allow tax-paying illegal immigrants without criminal records to remain in the country or gain citizenship.
“If you've come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home, period,” Gingrich had 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.”
"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 which have been here a quarter-century," he added. "I'm prepared to take the heat for saying let's be humane in enforcing the law."
Gingrich has faced criticism for his comments from other Republicans. Rep. Michelle Bachmann (Minn.) said in an interview that Gingrich had the “most liberal position on illegal immigration of any of the candidates in the race.”
Influential Iowa congressman Rep. Steve King (R) described Gingrich’s proposals as a “form of amnesty”
“I wouldn’t agree with him on that policy,” King added, suggesting that Gingrich had hurt his chances of winning his endorsement prior to the Iowa caucuses.
The furor over Gingrich’s immigration stance comes as new national polls place him ahead of Romney in the GOP field.