Distancing himself from his former-president brother and Sen. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush appeared to reverse course Monday when he said undocumented immigrants should not be given a pathway to citizenship.
The former Florida governor’s comments came on the eve of the release of a new immigration-reform book he co-wrote called “Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution.”
While many dismissed Bush’s talk as a book-selling ploy, others saw it as a sign Bush is positioning himself for a presidential run in 2016 — a possibility he wouldn’t rule out — by moving rightward.
A few Republicans and some immigration-reform advocates worried Bush could upset politically fragile negotiations in Washington, where Republicans have increasingly dropped objections to a citizenship-pathway for undocumented immigrants.
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“A grant of citizenship is an undeserving reward for conduct that we cannot afford to encourage,” Bush wrote in the book with co-author Clint Bolick, a conservative lawyer.
“Those who violated the law can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship,” they wrote.
Until Monday, Bush had one of the most liberal immigration positions for a conservative leader. While governor from 1999-2007, Bush backed legislation that would have allowed illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses.
Bush last year had voiced support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and he tacitly backed it in a 2007 immigration-reform bill pushed by his brother, President George W. Bush.
That bill failed and helped cost Republicans the support of Hispanic voters.
Now Bush’s political protégé, Sen. Rubio – also a possible presidential contender -- has joined a group of eight senators hammering out an immigration-reform bill that includes a pathway to citizenship. Previously, Rubio supported a mere pathway to residency. Bush supports that idea, rather than the more liberal path to citizenship.
Bush, whose wife is from Mexico, has largely remained consistent on immigration.
Bush still supports the DREAM Act, which would give a special citizenship pathway to college- and military-bound undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children.
Also, Bush warns Republicans about the dangers of adopting hardline rhetoric when it comes to immigration.
“Mitt Romney moved so far to the right on immigration issues that it proved all but impossible for him to appeal to Hispanic voters in the general election,” Bush and Bolick wrote.
“Although Romney eventually called for comprehensive immigration reform, a platform that hardened the party’s stance on immigration hung like an anvil around his candidacy.”
It was all too much for backers and advisers to Romney.
At different times during the presidential campaign, Bush made veiled critical references about Romney. Now, Romney backers say, Bush sounds as if he’s adopting the same positions as Romney.
“Where the hell was this Jeb Bush during the campaign?” one angered Romney adviser said.
“He spent all this time criticizing Romney and it turns out he has basically the same position. So he wants people to go back to their country and apply for citizenship? Well, that’s self deportation. We got creamed for talking about that. And now Jeb is saying the same thing.”
Asked to respond, Bush said by email: “I am not advocating self-deportation. Read the book.”
Though Bush does suggest that illegal immigrants go home and lawfully apply for citizenship, he doesn’t say they have to leave the United States.
“Once immigrants who entered illegally as adults plead guilty and pay the applicable fines or perform community service, they will become eligible to start the process to earn permanent legal residency,” Bush and Bolick wrote. “Such earned residency should entail paying taxes, learning English, and committing no substantial crimes.”
Rubio had a similar position last year.
But in order for Rubio to join the so-called “Gang of Eight” in the Senate, he had to agree to support a pathway to citizenship. By joininng the effort, Rubio used his tea party cred to win conservative support. Now some worry Bush’s different position could embolden enough Republicans to scuttle a deal.
Rubio’s office wouldn’t comment.
Meantime, Rubio and fellow Republicans are demanding that Democrats support enhanced border security measures.
Bush takes issue with some secure-the-border first approaches to immigration reform.
“Demanding border security as a prerequisite to broader immigration reform is a good slogan but elusive on details and measurements,” they write. “What do advocates of such an approach mean by ‘operational control’ of the border? That not a single immigrant will cross illegally? That no illegal drugs will cross the border? That no terrorists will enter our country? What exactly is the magic moment we must wait for before we can fix the broken immigration system?”
Bush, who gave national TV interviews Monday, attracted the most attention for his position on a pathway to citizenship.
Last year, Bush told CBS’s Charlie Rose that “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 residency of some kind."
According to Newsday, he also told students at Hofstra University in 2012 he favored a pathway to citizenship.
A spokeswoman for Bush said he envisions an improved, streamlined system that wouldn’t prevent a once-undocumented immigrant from eventually applying for citizenship.
“The book outlines a proposal by which immigrants — whether they are coming to work temporarily, to go to school, to live and work as permanent residences or to seeking citizenship — can do so through an immigration process that would be much more open than before,” spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof said.
Bush was roundly criticized by Democrats. But immigration-reform advocates like Frank Sharry, director of the group America’s Voice, said he felt badly for Bush who, he believes, miscalculated.
“Until today, Jeb Bush was the most-popular leader among Latinos,” Sharry said. “He dropped the ball.”
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report