Newt Gingrich is the standard bearer for traditional family values within the Republican party? As unlikely as that might seem given the former House Speaker's history of marital infidelities and messy divorce, it's apparent he may be the only GOP candidate willing to use the word "humane" when discussing immigration policy — even at risk of suffering a conservative backlash for doing so.

What Mr. Gingrich said in a recent debate was hardly an invitation to amnesty, as his opponents claim, but was merely a departure of the conservative gold-standard position on immigration that would have you believe that 11 million undocumented immigrants can (or at least should) be deported.


"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 that have been here a quarter-century," Mr. Gingrich said last week. "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."

If anything, the speaker's position doesn't go far enough. His idea of a non-citizen citizen strikes us as a second-class standing that is more problematic than helpful. But at the core of his observation is at least a recognition of the reality of the immigration dilemma: Deporting hard-working men and women who have been assets to their communities and potentially separating them from their U.S.-born children (and grandchildren and nieces and nephews, etc.), is both cruel and un-American.

Credit Mr. Gingrich for facing the music, particularly given his recent rise to front-runner status in the GOP field and the backlash that Rick Perry has received on the issue of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants in Texas. Certainly, the former House speaker could have dodged and weaved his way around immigration — offered some new plan for border security instead — but has (at least so far) stuck to his guns.

U.S. immigration policy is a mess — much like the federal budget is a mess — because Republicans have grown so inflexible on the issue. It's all very well to build fences, hire border patrol guards or even more severely penalize employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants — as President Obama has done, even more so than his Republican predecessor. But the country also needs to do something productive (and fair) about those millions who already live in the U.S.

Mr. Gingrich is at least willing to have that conversation. Others like Rep. Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney seem to believe anything short of deportation (or adopting policies that lead to a mythical "self-retreat") is unacceptable — "if people who come here illegally are going to get to stay illegally for the rest of their life, that's going to only encourage more people to come here illegally," Mr. Romney observed in the same debate.

Deportation isn't a serious immigration policy, but it would be costly. What the nation needs is a realistic immigration reform proposal that takes into account not only border security but also U.S. labor needs and creates a reasonable path to citizenship for those undocumented immigrants already living in this country.

Credit Mr. Gingrich for at least understanding that his political party is doomed if it continues down an extremist road and against the interest of Hispanic voters. The demographics are clear enough. There are now 50.4 million Hispanics living in this country (or 16.3 percent of the total population), which makes them the nation's largest minority, and Republican intransigence on this issue is causing most of them to support Democratic candidates.

It's difficult to predict how the GOP's presidential candidates will be standing with the party's voters in the crucial next several months ahead; the remarkable volatility of the race might continue. But we suspect the immigration issue won't lead to Mr. Gingrich's undoing.

It was, after all, no less of a GOP icon than Ronald Reagan who most famously endorsed amnesty for 3 million undocumented immigrants, a policy he signed into law 25 years ago to benefit those who came into this country prior to 1982.

To this day, Mr. Reagan isn't vilified for that humane decision. Mr. Gingrich should not be for proposing something less than amnesty but that also takes into account the impact of immigration enforcement on families.