Jeb Bush on immigration: ‘A lot of hair on fire —Mine isn’t’

Immigration is a minefield.

Jeb Bush stepped in it.

Bush’s new book, Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution, exploded on the political scene last week and left the former Florida governor uncharacteristically wobbly over how to legalize the status of the undocumented.

The controversy — and perhaps the book itself — summed up the politics of immigration: laden with political peril, nuance, seeming contradiction and complexity.

The book is also a point of departure for Bush’s political aspirations. He’s neither ruling out nor in a White House bid in 2016.

That invites more political scrutiny than Bush says he realized.

“If I made a mistake, I didn’t assume that everything would be viewed through a political lens,” Bush told The Miami Herald. “In Washington, it seems, everybody assumes there’s a political motivation to everything. And not understanding that, I accept responsibility for it.”

“Is it a big deal? No,” he said. “When you’re governor, you have to deal with real big deals. This is not one of those.”

But this is a big deal.

On Sunday, Bush appeared on every major news program, capping a cross-country schedule of interviews that began with an appearance on NBC’s Today Show. He stopped at the Reagan National Library on Friday.

Authors of most books — especially policy topics like immigration — usually don’t get that sort of wall-to-wall media exposure. If Bush’s coauthor, lawyer Clint Bolick, wrote this alone, it probably wouldn’t make the news.

But other authors aren’t scions of a political dynasty, former governors, the son and brother of former presidents, possible presidential candidates or fathers of possible future presidential candidates.

Bush said they wrote Immigration Wars last year to spur action.

By the time it was printed, however, the debate was well under way in Washington. There, Bush protégé and neighbor, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, of West Miami, plays a leading role among a bipartisan group of eight senators hammering out an immigration bill.

Still, Immigration Wars is a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about the mind of one of the GOP’s top idea men. Its roughly 250 pages move at a surprisingly quick pace.

It’s also full of quirky stats: half of all apples are now grown in China; more Americans can name all Three Stooges than a single Supreme Court justice. Eye-opening figures: only 13 percent of the roughly 1 million legal immigrants in 2011 were admitted for work purposes. History: Ben Franklin penned an anti-immigrant pamphlet aimed at Germans who threatened to make the U.S. “a colony of Aliens.”

Like the immigration issue itself, the book will leave few people at either extreme — the “demagogues” — happy.

Bush tacks right in calling for a residency-path — instead of a citizen-path bashed as more “amnesty” by conservatives. Yet he moves left in criticizing those obsessed with border security.

The book takes shots at “nativists” in the Republican Party and Republican Mitt Romney’s tone-deaf campaign when it came to Hispanic outreach and immigration. The authors spare few opportunities to blast President Obama and unions. They refrain from criticism of either Bush presidency and praise Bush’s education reforms.

Though it has a chapter on immigration history and rightly blames both sides for the failure of comprehensive immigration reform, it gives short shrift to the fact that it was Republicans and conservatives who were more responsible for killing reform during the presidency of Bush’s brother due to concerns about too much “amnesty” and too little border security.

Written by two conservatives, the book leans right.

Despite the media brouhaha over how to legalize an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, Immigration Wars is about far more.

Bush said the most under-reported concept the book advances: Giving workers, especially high-skilled workers, immigration preference, Right now, the system largely favors what’s called family reunification, and the definition of family isn’t limited to parents and children.

“The eight-hundred-pound gorilla in immigration policy is ‘family reunification.’ A sizable majority of visas — nearly two-thirds — are allocated every year for that purpose,” they write.

They also advocate for a guest-worker program, scrapping the system that ensures immigrants from no single country can account for more than 7 percent of green cards issued per year.

Immigrants from India, “who have started more U.S. companies than immigrants from the next four countries combined — are limited to the same 9,800 annual green cards as every other country.”

By encouraging more high-skilled labor (which brings in young, productive workers) and discouraging so-called “chain migration” (which can encourage retirees and children who use social services more), the authors argue immigration reform will improve the economy and shore up programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which will have net new revenues and slower recipient growth.

"Demography can dictate our destiny — unless we change it," they write.

The book weaves back and forth on immigrants and entitlements.

Though immigrants are limited in receiving Medicare and Social Security, the book says, 37 percent “receive some welfare benefits, compared to 22.5 percent among the native population.”

But a 1997 study seems to contradict that, showing immigrants pay a net $1,800 on average more into government than they receive, or in the case of Arizona in 2004, immigrants paid a net $940 million more than they consumed, the book says.

They point to a 2012 study showing the net flow of Mexican immigrants was at zero or had reversed. But they then note a recent dissent from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in a case involving Arizona’s 2010 immigration law in which he said that “citizens feel themselves under siege by large numbers of illegal immigrants.”

The book is silent on one reason people feel that way: Republican politicians like Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who campaigned on the law, sometimes exaggerated problems by falsely claiming, for instance, that there were beheadings at the border.

Bolick, the co-author, also noted he had left the Republican Party a decade before over the “strident” position on immigration in his home state of Arizona.

“There is no avalanche of illegal immigration. To emphasize halting illegal immigration as a cornerstone of immigration reform is fighting yesterday’s war,” they write. “An enforcement-only or a secure-the-border-first policy is self-defeating… a fence encompassing all the 1,969 miles of our southern border would be enormously costly and not necessarily effective.”

Still, they point out, the border needs strong law enforcement to stop the flow of drugs that have destabilized Mexico and Central America.

Perhaps the biggest contradiction is between the book’s call for a residency-path and what Bush says is his longstanding support for a more generous pathway to citizenship.

When they were writing the book last year, immigration reform seemed a more-impossible lift in Washington. So he compromised with his own principles.

“We were trying to get people from ‘no’ to maybe or from no to ‘yes.’ We wanted the book to play a constructive role,” he said.

Bush said a resident-path is an easier way to “delineate” those broke immigration law from those who patiently waited their turn, Bush said.

“We struggled with that. We didn’t know what that [pathway to citizenship] would look like,” Bush said.

Little did he realize that, by the time the book was printed, Sen. Rubio would help lead national Republicans to embrace a path to citizenship, which Rubio once opposed. Bush’s book dropped like military ordnance, it surprised Rubio and fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who told reporters that Bush was undermining their efforts.

Bush called to explain himself.

“We had a great talk. We’re totally in sync on a path forward. We’re on the same path,” Bush said.

In interviews throughout the week, Bush initially said he supported a citizenship-path but didn’t see how it could be done. By week’s end, after talking to Graham and Rubio, he said he was confident they were “on the right track.”

The reversals and nuanced pragmatic stance was a different side of the former governor who fashioned himself as a bold straight-talker.

Meantime, Republicans like Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz seemed to welcome Bush’s stance on legalization.

“A pathway to citizenship won’t pass [Congress],” Cruz said. He wouldn’t say whether he favored a residency-path, but when asked if he didn’t oppose it, Cruz was silent but nodded in assent.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said Bush made “a fool of himself” for flip flopping and “devolving” on the issue. Rubio called Reid a “partisan.”

When asked why immigration is such a minefield for Republicans, Rubio noted that Democrats had their struggles, pointing out unions have opposed a guest-worker program, which Bush and Rubio want.

The fact that Bush and Rubio, who might run for president in four years as well, have a slight disagreement on legalization set the Washington chattering class ablaze with speculation of fallout between the two friends. Both deny it.Aides say the two are closer to brothers than friends (their homes are less than 4 miles apart) and that if they disagree, no one would know outside of their tight circle.

“Jeb was writing a book. He wasn’t writing a bill,” Rubio said, echoing Bush and implicitly pointing out the latter is harder.

“Marco’s stepped up incredibly well. We’re close friends. This whole People Magazine-whatever-you-call it, it’s really kind of, you know, childish. It’s juvenile, untrue,” Bush said.

“There’s a lot of hair on fire right now,” Bush said of the political tenor in Washington. “Mine isn’t.”