Jeb Bush’s Path to Immigration Reform: Walking a Line

Photograph by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks to the media after being named Chairman of the National Constitution Center’s Board of Trustees in Philadelphia.

Updated again at 7 am EST, March 5

Jeb Bush’s new book, “Immigration Wars,” is billed as a “call for systemic reform.”

In announcing the book last fall with co-author Clint Bolick, a research fellow with the Hoover Institution, the former governor of Florida, brother of one president and son of another said he hoped it would “help point the way to resolving a vitally important issue that has suffered from a colossal failure of political leadership on both sides of the partisan divide.”

In initially withholding his endorsement from any of his party’s candidates for president before his own state’s primary election in 2012, Bush was sending a message that the debate over immigration had grown too polarizing, alienating an important and growing electorate.

During the campaign, later signing on with nominee Mitt Romney and speaking for him at the Republican National Convention, Bush spoke proudly of what his older brother had attempted to achieve with immigration reform. Romney too shelved his own send-’em-home rhetoric from the party’s primaries.

“My brother attempted to do it… He had the votes,” Bush said of immigration legislation that would have enabled undocumented immigrants to seek a path to citizenship — he said this over breakfast at the Tampa convention with editors and reporters from Bloomberg News and the Washington Post. “We wouldn’t be talking about the issue if we’d had immigration reform in 2006.”

His party, he said, should evolve from the GOP to the “Grand Solutions Party.”

Yet, as the immigration debate of 2013 gets underway, with Republicans and Democrats in both the Senate and House working on plans for the comprehensive sort of reform that Bush advocates, he stops short of endorsing one of the tenets of the past attempt at reform and the newest one as well: Offering a path, or roadmap, to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.

“No comprehensive immigration plan can ignore the many millions of people living illegally in the United States,” Bush and Bolick write in their book being released this week. At the same time, while trying to “put ourselves in the shoes of people who have entered the country illegally,” the nation cannot allow people to “immigrate illegally without consequence while millions of others wait to enter through lawful means.” This, they contend, would only create “a strong incentive for illegal immigration.”

The issue, they write, has two components, the adults who entered illegally, and those who came as children.

“We propose a path to permanent legal resident status for those who entered our country illegally as adults and who have committed no additional crimes of significance,” they write. “Permanent residency in this context, however, should not lead to citizenship. It is absolutely vital to the integrity of our immigration system that actions have consequences — in this case, that those who violated the laws can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship.”

It’s different for children, they write — they were brought here under the control of adults and are not responsible for their wrongdoing. They embrace the goals of the DREAM Act, offering citizenship for children brought here illegally and who have lived here at least five years. And children born in the U.S. of illegal immigrant parents already have the right of citizenship.

On the question of citizenship for adults, it would appear that Bush has evolved in his thinking from last summer. In an interview with Charlie Rose in June 2012 he acknowledged that his support for a path to citizenship for the undocumented placed him at odds with many in his party. “You have to deal with the issue,” Bush said then. “You can’t ignore it. And so, either a path to citizenship — which I would support and that does put me probably out of the mainstream of most conservatives — or a path to legalization, a path to residency of some kind.”

Update: Last night, Bush explained that he hasn’t had a change of heart, and that indeed he’d remain open to compromise on the issue of citizenship as it’s debated.

“My views on this are based on the principle that those that come illegally should not be treated better than those that have waited patiently to come legally and never get called to come,” Bush replied in an e-mail to our question about his thinking on the question. “If a compromise is done dealing with this principle, then I could support such a compromise. That has been my view. No change of heart. We have written a book to try to pursuade conservatives to engage in the comprehensive reform debate.”

And then this morning, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Bush said that he could support a bill providing a path to citizenship provided it were crafted in a way that didn’t encourage more illegal immigration. His book doesn’t propose that, he said, because he views his plan as a “clearer” way forward, yet, yes, he could support a well-constructed citizenship path.

It’s not only Hispanic voters with whom the Republican Party must recraft its tone and appeal, he added. It’s also Asian-American voters – the real “canary in the coal mine,” they gave three-quarters of their vote to Obama last year, he noted of the exit polls. Fair or not, he said, these generally more educated and affluent voters feel “stiff-armed” by Republicans.

As he first explained his thinking about residency and citizenship yesterday on NBC’s “Today” Show, Bush made some headlines in Washington and elsewhere: Romney, he said, had “put himself in a box” in the primaries by “trying to (out-do) conservatives… and he never really recovered from it.” At the same time, he said: “There has to be some difference between people who come here legally and illegally.”

Most notable of the day’s headlines: The Huffington Post’s, which suggests that another Republican who could figure prominently in his party’s presidential election contests has reversed positions — the headline spelling Immigration Reform backwards.

Bush said on “Today” that he hadn’t ruled out a run in 2016.

As he addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington next week, conservatives will be watching the path — a fine line, perhaps — that Bush treads between residency and citizenship on an issue that remains critical to his party’s successes at the polls.

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