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In GOP debate over national security, Gingrich defends long-term illegal residents

The Republican presidential hopefuls will be back on the campaign trail Wednesday after clashing at their eleventh debate Tuesday night. NBC's Kristen Welker reports.


Updated at 10:40pm ET

American policy toward Iran and the difficulty of America maintaining a robust foreign policy as its national debt is growing were issues that dominated the Republican presidential debate Tuesday night in Washington.

But in the debate’s final half hour, illegal immigration suddenly became the focus as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made an extended and vigorous defense of allowing illegal residents who’d settled in America for many years to stay and not be deported.

He said to Rep. Michele Bachmann, R- Minn., “You find people who have been here 25 years, and have two generations of family, and have been paying taxes, and are in a local church, and as somebody who believes strongly in family, you’re going to have a hard time explaining why that particular subset is being broken up and forced to leave.”

He added, “I’m prepared to take the heat for saying ‘Let’s be humane in enforcing the law….’”

He did say that recently arrived illegal immigrants should be deported if they have no ties to the United States.

Gingrich also supported a provision of a bill supported by President Obama called the Dream Act which would allow illegal immigrants to join the U.S. military and earn their citizenship by serving in uniform.

Both Bachmann and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney clashed with Gingrich on the immigration issue, with Romney calling for more legal immigration -- especially of highly skilled people -- but assailing amnesty for illegal immigrants.

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“We talk about people who have been here 25 years,” Romney said to Gingrich. “That is the extreme exception and not the rule.”

But somewhat confusingly Romney also said, “I’m not going to start drawing lines here about who gets to stay and who gets to go.”

Earlier in the two-hour debate, Gingrich said as president he would take steps to “break the Iranian regime, I think, within a year, starting candidly with cutting the gasoline supply to Iran and sabotaging the only refinery they have.”“

He added, “Replacing the (Iranian) regime before they get a nuclear weapon, without a war, beats replacing the regime with a war which beats allowing them to have a nuclear weapon.”

Rep. Ron Paul, R- Texas argued that the biggest threat to U.S. national security is "our financial condition" and called for cutting the deficit by cutting outlays on the military and foreign aid.

Gross federal debt now exceeds $15 trillion which is roughly the size of the U.S. national income. Interest payments on the debt were the fastest growing category of federal spending in fiscal year 2011, up 16 percent from FY 2010. Military spending grew by less than 2 percent in FY2011, after a decade of growth at about 9 percent a year.

With those costs in mind, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman made the case for a much smaller U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan and repeated a slogan he had used in previous debates: “We have 100,000 troops nation building in Afghanistan when this nation so desperately needs to be built.”

He said only 10,000 to 15,000 American troops were needed in Afghanistan and said “the American people are getting very tired” with the U.S. commitment in that country. Romney clashed with Huntsman on this issue, saying “I stand with the generals” and that the troop level that Huntsman wanted would “put at risk” what the United States had achieved in Afghanistan.

And Romney rebutted Paul by saying the reductions in future defense outlays would undercut “the capacity of American to defend itself.”

He reeled off a list of military hardware that would be cut by the Budget Control Act: the F-22 fighter, aircraft carriers, and long-range Air Force bombers.

He accused Obama of having a policy of being “friendly to our foes and disrespectful to our friends.” He pledged that his first foreign trip, if he's elected president, would be to Israel.