By MATTHEW JAFFE and JORDAN FABIAN
MANCHESTER, N.H. - Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said today that the country is not "heartless" and should allow undocumented immigrants to remain here if they have already laid down roots.
"We are not going to go into those churches and those neighborhoods and tear apart those families. The American people aren't heartless," Gingrich said before a packed crowd at a Latino outreach event held at Don Quijote's Mexican Restaurant in Manchester.
"We have to end the period of having people in the shadows," he said. "It's bad for the country, it's bad for the people, it leads them to get excluded, it is dangerous. It means those that need help are afraid to show up and ask for it. So I want to find a path that gets us to a system where four or five years from now 99.99 percent of everybody in the United States is here legally and we're comfortable with it."
The immigration issue has mainly been relegated to the back seat in the New Hampshire GOP primary. But it was thrust out into the open at Gingrich's Hispanic outreach event, which was picketed by Occupy protesters and at times turned contentious.
Gingrich has outlined the most moderate immigration stance of all the Republican presidential candidates. At a debate in Washington, D.C., in November, Gingrich said the government should not expel immigrants if they have been here for a quarter of a century, raising a family, paying taxes, and obeying the law. He voiced support for granting those undocumented immigrants legal status, but not full citizenship, and for a temporary guest-worker program for undocumented individuals in the United States.
That stance drew widespread criticism from Gingrich's GOP rivals, who have voiced more conservative approaches to the controversial issue. Front runner Mitt Romney, who won Iowa and leads the polls in New Hampshire and South Carolina, said only days before the caucuses that he would veto the DREAM Act, a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for some undocumented children of immigrants who attend college or serve in the military.
"There are parts of it I like," Gingrich said today of the immigration measure, explaining that he supports granting a path to citizenship to young people who enlist in the military, but not to minors who attend college.
While some Latinos in Iowa and New Hampshire have recently said they will not vote for Romney due to his immigration position, the former Massachusetts governor has enjoyed a far better start to the GOP primary than Gingrich.
Gingrich is coming off a disappointing fourth-place finish in last week's Iowa caucuses, a dramatic fall for him after he surged to the top of the polls in December. But he brushed off concerns about his standing in the race during a media availability following the event.
"We have begun to set the stage for South Carolina and clearly we have begun to describe the gap between the Massachusetts moderate and the Reagan conservative," Gingrich said, referring to Romney with the former moniker.
The former House speaker has openly courted the support of Latinos throughout the 2012 race, even in states with few of them like Iowa and New Hampshire. According to the 2010 Census, Latinos constitute only 5 percent of the population in Iowa and 2.8 percent in New Hampshire.
Gingrich's daughter, Kathy Lubbers, who is fluent in Spanish, introduced him at the town-hall style event today, and he boasted about several Latinos working on his campaign team. Campaign staff distributed Spanish-language campaign literature, including one titled "10 Razones Por Que Los Latinos Deberían Apoyar A Newt Gingrich Como Presidente." He also spoke at length about issues affecting the community beyond immigration, such as jobs, education, family values and the influence of Iran in Latin America.
"He has been working with and including the Hispanic community for seven, eight years. We have had a Hispanic person leading the charge for us for multiple years on a variety of topics even before we were involved with this presidential campaign," Lubbers said in an interview with Univision News following the event. "We have a lot of people in place, probably more than any other candidate. So I'm hopeful that it actually comes to fruition and we'll just have to see if it plays the way we're hoping it does."
But along with that, he's facing additional scrutiny over how he would implement his immigration plan. A town hall participant named Hector Velez asked Gingrich whether he would make an Obama-like promise on immigration and pass his plan within the first 100 days of his administration.
Gingrich was vague, replying that he would not pass his proposal as a single piece of legislation - the approach that has been used in the past - and instead would break it up into different pieces. He added that he is "committed" to passing his plan into law.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision. Jordan Fabian is political editor for Univision in English.