In interviews last week during a book tour widely viewed as a prelude to a 2016 presidential bid, Jeb Bush got tripped up by his own party’s vacillation over immigration reform.
The incident showed once again the Republican Party’s problems in connecting with America’s fastest-growing minority.
Bush flipped, and then flopped back again, on whether to allow a path to citizenship or just legal residence for illegal immigrants.
The difference may seem minor, but experts say it carries deep emotional significance to Hispanics, both voters and immigrants, and involves a fundamental principle of American immigration law.
Bush denies he flipped, but regardless, his difficulty communicating a clear position illustrates the party’s problems.
Few Republicans, and virtually no non-Hispanics, claim a closer connection to Latinos than Bush, who’s bilingual and married to a Mexican-American immigrant.
Also, few have a stronger reputation as a policy maven.
“He has a longer history and more consistent record of reaching out to Hispanics than anyone, even Marco Rubio,” said retired University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson.
The quibbling over a path to citizenship “has sort of tarnished that image,” Paulson said. “That was his real strength as a Republican.”
According to news reports on advance copies, it says permanent residency “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 have violated the laws can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship."
Bush stood by that in the initial interview for his tour Monday.
“If we want to create an immigration policy that’s going to work, we can’t continue to make illegal immigration an easier path than legal immigration,” he said on the “Today Show.” “There has to be some difference between people who come here legally and illegally.”
That put him in opposition to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and the bipartisan “Gang of 8” senators who last month proposed an immigration reform plan including a path to citizenship. One gang member, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., expressed displeasure, saying Bush’s stance “undercuts what we’re trying to do.”
It also appeared to conflict with Bush’s own past stances.
In a June PBS interview with Charlie Rose, he recommended, “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.”
When reporters noted the flip, Bush walked it back – putting him in the uncomfortable position of appearing to contradict his own, just-published book.
On Tuesday, he told a CNN interviewer, "I have supported both – both a path to legalization or a path to citizenship – with the underlying principle being that there should be no incentive for people to come illegally at the expense of coming legally.”
On Joe Scarborough’s “Morning Joe,” he said, “I would support it (a path to citizenship) if it didn’t create an incentive for people to come illegally at the expense of coming legally.”
Bush denies he flipped at all.
“He has not changed his position on a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, despite what the press is reporting,” said spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof. “He has said he can support a system that provides a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, as long as those who have been waiting patiently to enter the country legally receive priority.”
The book, she said, “provides a set of recommendations based on what is needed and what can generate bipartisan support,” and “does not prohibit individuals here illegally from ever earning citizenship.”
“He’s never been one who’s afraid to take a position if he believes he can intellectually defend it, and he won’t be scared off it,” said Tampa-based GOP political strategist Fred Piccolo.
Piccolo cited Bush’s “One Florida” plan that ended affirmative action in university admissions, enacted despite opposition from civil rights advocates.
Following the news explosion over his apparent flip, Bush reassured supporters by email.
None would disclose what he said, but their comments probably echo his thoughts – and several said the climate within the GOP on immigration changed so quickly Bush was caught off guard.
That climate change clearly stemmed from Republican panic over President Barack Obama’s decisive win among Hispanics in November – which probably occurred after Bush and Bolick wrote the book.
“I think it was a matter of timing,” said Miami political strategist Ana Navarro. Bush wrote the book “last year, in the wake of the Republican presidential primary, which was a freak show on who could be toughest on immigration,” and added he was “trying to lay out some proposals that were not necessarily his wish list, but would bring Republicans to the table.”
“But by the time the book got published, the debate had moved more forward than what he lays out,” largely because of the Gang of 8, she said.
Unlike legal resident aliens, citizens can vote, run for public office, serve on juries and get security clearances.
Citizens also get preference over legal residents on some immigration matters including immunity to deportation and ability to sponsor family members for admission.
The difference “doesn’t affect people in their daily lives that much,” but it’s still important, said Florida International University political scientist Dario Moreno, who specializes in Hispanic issues.
“The guiding principle of our law has always been that once you make the U.S. your home, you have the chance to become a citizen,” he said. Allowing legal status, but not a path to citizenship, would create a new class of American residents – “someone who’s here legally but not eligible for citizenship.”
In a November survey, he said, 60 percent of Latino voters said they knew an undocumented immigrant, in many cases a family member.
“There’s a sense that reforms without a path to citizenship would create a permanent, legal 2nd-class status,” Barreto said. “There’s real fear and opposition to that.”
In a June poll comparing two reform plans for illegal immigrant youths brought here involuntarily by their parents, Latino voters preferred 10-1 a plan with a path to citizenship by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., over one leading only to legal residence, by Sen. Rubio.
Bush backers denied the book and tour were intended as a prelude to a presidential campaign.
“This is not a typical political book – it’s not a bio, not about his success as governor, not about his political life,” and not about Bush’s signature issue, education, noted adviser Sally Bradshaw.
But she acknowledged that “everything he does is viewed thru a political lens,” and Bush backers also knew the tour signaled he’s interested in being back on the public stage.
“It’s pretty clear this is the strongest signal to date that he’s considering a run,” said another long-time adviser, Cory Tilley, noting that Bush didn’t dismiss questions about 2016 during his interviews.
“A lot of people in Florida and around the country have been waiting for that signal.”