(CNN) – GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich sought to stand strong against illegal immigration Friday after rivals blasted him this week as a supporter of amnesty for millions of undocumented immigrants.
“I am not for amnesty for 11 million people. I’m actually not for amnesty for anyone. I’m not for a path to citizenship for any people who are out here illegally, ” Gingrich said forcefully at a town hall event in Naples, Florida. “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.”
Gingrich drew fire at Tuesday’s CNN Republican National Security Debate when he said he was “prepared to take the heat” for arguing that the GOP should take a “humane” position on longtime illegal immigrants by finding another way to “legality” that avoids breaking up families.
His opponents onstage pounced on his comments, and on Tuesday Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann took to the airwaves to blast Gingrich as “liberal” on illegal immigration and as a proponent of amnesty.
On Wednesday, he engaged in a back-and-forth with fellow GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, pointing to a 2007 interview in which the former Massachusetts governor said longtime illegal immigrants should "be able to stay, sign up for permanent residency or citizenship."
Romney’s campaign fired back, arguing that the video had been taken out of context and provided a fuller clip of the interview, in which Romney later said: “But they should not be given a special pathway, a special guarantee that all of them get to stay here for the rest of their lives merely by virtue of having come here illegally.”
The former House speaker insisted Friday night that he was anything but soft on the issue. He said controlling the border and making English the official language would be among his first tasks as president. He also called for a guest worker program, but only if it imposed harsh penalties on anyone who hires workers without documentation.
“I would have very, very stiff economic penalties for anyone who hires somebody who is not legally inside the system,” Gingrich said. “I would be very tough.”
Talking about Tuesday’s debate, Gingrich said his opponents had grossly twisted his words and he chided the GOP field for being unable to have an “honest, serious discussion about real solutions.”
He said the point he tried to make on Tuesday was that he believes the vast majority of illegal immigrants should be deported – with a few exceptions.
“I do think if somebody in your neighborhood has been here 25 years and they belong in your church, and they have three kids and two grandkids, and they've been paying taxes and working hard the entire time, it's going to be very, very hard to get the American people to believe that we ought to tear up those families and expel them,” he said.
Instead, he proposed that the country adopt a system used during World War II, in which communities made the decision as to who stays and who goes.
“They really tried to take general policy and give it a human face,” Gingrich said.
He insisted, however, that anyone who remains would qualify only for legal status and not American citizenship, “unless they go home and they apply through the regular procedures back home and get in line behind everybody else.”