After taking heat from his fellow Republican presidential candidates for supposedly being soft on immigration, GOP frontrunner Newt Gingrich laid down a stricter rhetoric on the issue during the Thursday night’s debate in Iowa.

While refusing to back off his previous statement – that it was unjust to deport undocumented immigrants who have lived in the country for 25 years and have families in the U.S. – Gingrich said that the federal government should drop lawsuits against states, like Arizona and Alabama, with strict immigration laws.

The former Speaker of the House added that the U.S.-Mexico border should be secured by January of 2014 and that so-called sanctuary cities – towns perceived as having immigrant-friendly laws and policies – should be prohibited.

"I would propose cutting off all federal aid to any sanctuary city that deliberately violated fed law,” Gingrich said.

A number of recent polls suggest that the majority of voters, including Republicans, believe that undocumented immigrants should be given the chance to legalize their status.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has been Gingrich’s main political sparing partner in recent weeks, championed the federal government’s E-Verify system and proposed identification cards for all "non-resident aliens" working in the country.

Romney drew heat earlier this month from a number of Democrats for his supposed flip-flopping on a number of issues, including immigration. 

"What I think, and it's a personal opinion, is that Romney wants to be president of the U.S. and he's going to do and say what's necessary to get there. Unfortunately, that includes changing his opinion and harming the lives of many people," said California Rep. Xavier Becerra.

At first a supporter of bipartisan immigration reform, Romney has since stated publicly that the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. should be deported.

In a major departure from the GOP line, dark horse candidate Jon Huntsman said Americans should be alarmed by the reduction of legal immigrants coming to the U.S. – because of the ailing economy – and fewer entrepreneurs contributing to the economic recovery. 

“This president has so screwed up this economy, nobody is coming anymore. There is nothing to come for,” Huntsman said. “Let's not lose sight of the fact that legal immigration is an engine of growth for this country. Half of the Fortune 500 countries in this country today were founded by immigrants.”

Huntsman also added that Latinos will vote for Republicans because of the party’s pro-growth policies.

A poll released earlier this week by Latino Decisions showed that the two most important issues to Latino voters in the run-up to the presidential elections were, by 42 percent and 23 percent, respectively, immigration and job creation. The poll did indicate, however, that 54 percent of Latinos were certain to vote for President Barack Obama, while only nine percent were certain to vote Republican.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who came under fire back in September defending his state's plan to extend in-state university tuition to undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country as children and attend high school in Texas, focused his comments Thursday more toward the issue of border security.

"I've sent Texas Ranger recon teams there. Our law enforcement men and women face fire from across the border, or in the U.S. side, from the drug cartels," Perry said. "It is not safe there.”

Perry and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, meanwhile, said they believed that terrorist cells used Mexico, Venezuela and other Latin American nations as bases of operation. 

“There are jihadist training camps in Central and South America,” Santorum said. “The president has ignored this.”

The Iowa debate came 19 days before the Iowa Caucus on January 3, 2012. The Iowa Caucus is the first major electoral event for political parties choosing their presidential candidate.

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