If the other Republican presidential candidates are any measure, Newt Gingrich might have stepped in it last night at the CNN GOP presidential debate on the subject of immigration and deportation. Another perspective might be that Newt had the backbone to say what all the other candidates knew but didn’t have the courage to admit.

There’s nothing wrong with following the party line, but there’s also reality. Estimates of the number of illegal aliens in this country run anywhere from 11 to as high as 30 million, but since they are by definition “undocumented,” no one knows the true number. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 while well meaning was a quite naïve plan for dealing with illegal immigration. Among the articles of the law were 4 primary provisions:

· required employers to attest to their employees’ immigration status.

· made it illegal to knowingly hire or recruit unauthorized immigrants.

· granted amnesty to certain seasonal agricultural illegal immigrants.

· granted amnesty to illegal immigrants who entered the United States before January 1, 1982 and had resided there continuously.

The bill was known as the Simpson-Mazzoli law for the co-sponsors Romano Mazzoli Democrat Representative from Kentucky and Alan Simpson Republican Senator from Wyoming, chairmen of their respective House and Senate immigration committees. The pair introduced the bill 3 times before achieving support from then-president Ronald Reagan.

One of the key points in selling the bill to Republican House and Senate members was an amendment to provide $35 million to provide for an increase in border patrol or other enforcement activities of the Immigration Service, and for reimbursement of State and localities in providing assistance in meeting an immigration emergency. At the time the law was signed into law it was estimated that there were 3 million illegal aliens in the U.S.

Only 2 of the 4 primary provisions of the bill were ever implemented to any significance and that was the amnesty terms. The first condition requiring employers to attest to an employee’s immigration status was no more than a change to the Federal I-9 form for specific documentation. Employers depending upon what might be fraudulent and easily obtained counterfeit documents were no more likely to be able to discern the immigration status of employees than before the law was in place; employer’s signature on a form that is never submitted to the government provided virtually no change to hiring practices.

The second provision, making it a crime to knowingly hire an illegal immigrant only caused employers to keep known illegal aliens off-the-books, creating a huge market for day workers. It is quite likely that the unintended consequences of the law actually stimulated illegal immigration.

The $35 million was a drop in the bucket and while there was a large increase in border patrol and Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers the number of illegals entering the country outstripped the increases in security by several orders of magnitude. The promise to stem the flow of illegal aliens never came to fruition and attempts to secure the border in the past 25 years have been pathetic.

Now faced with a likely 5 or 6-fold increase in the number of aliens in the country immigration is an extremely contentious issue. Democrats attempting to garner Latino support have pressed for comprehensive immigration reform while Republicans burnt by the 1986 law have insisted that any immigration reform must start with securing the border.

CNN’s Republican debate on foreign policy addressed the matter of immigration and border matters which provided the opportunity for the candidates to attack front-runner Newt Gingrich. Anything even remotely similar to amnesty has been the third rail of Republican politics since the ‘80s. Yet with at least 11 million undocumented aliens in the country deportation is not only financially but logistically impractical. If what many experts believe is true, that the true number is upwards of 20 million, deportation is nothing more than a pipe-dream.

Newt had the guts to suggest that a more realistic plan was to change the immigration status of those who’ve been in the country for 20 or 25 years, have led a law-abiding life, have paid taxes and have children that have been brought up as Americans to allow them to remain in the country as “documented” aliens. The other candidates immediately jumped on Newt as promoting another amnesty plan. Newt couched his suggestion with the precursor that the border must be secured first. Since the debate the attacks on Newt have grown sas the other candidates that have been sinking in the polls saw an opening to drag Newt down.

Newt made the point that Americans weren’t about to break up families of those that have lived a substantial part of their lives lawfully, even if they came here unlawfully. Since children born in the U.S. would not be subject to deportation, sending a father or mother back to the country of their origin would mean breaking up a family, which is an anathema to a pro-family party. Newt wasn’t suggesting a path to citizenship, but rather a legal and documented status and only for a very limited group.

“I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families which have been here a quarter century and I’m prepared to take the heat for saying let’s be humane in enforcing the law,” Newt said.

Michele Bachmann jumped on Newt’s suggestion as amnesty for all illegal aliens, when she knew that wasn’t even close to what Newt was suggesting. As desperation sets in amongst those that sunk into the single-digits, recasting your opponents words becomes all too common, yet it was quite disappointing to see Bachmann twisting Newt’s words to such a degree.

Bachmann continued in post debate interviews to tar Newt Gingrich as a supporter of the DREAM Act that gives illegal students in-school tuition and other breaks on a federal level. Bachmann knows well that the only provision of the DREAM Act that Gingrich supported was a path to citizenship for illegal aliens that have served honorably in the military. Bachmann’s reaction and false attacks on Newt appear more of a sign that her fading hopes have reached critical mass.

One of Newt’s strong points is that he’s willing to risk the wrath of his fellow presidential hopefuls and party faithful to speak the truth. Even if it was practical to deport every illegal alien, is that the right path? Yes, each one has broken the law and they do not have a right to benefit from the gifts of America and possibly take jobs from lawful citizens; but assuming a secure border, what do you do? You might deport a good number, certainly starting with those that have broken other laws, but you simply cannot deport tens of millions of people. Another solution has to come forward and at this time only Newt has shown the courage to risk his political future to offer one. Regardless of what you think of Newt Gingrich, at least credit him with the boldness to forward an idea when his counterparts shrink at the challenge.