Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio tread carefully on immigration reform

Marco Rubio laughs as he is surrounded by media at a campaign house party in Manchester, N.H.
Marco Rubio laughs as he is surrounded by media at a campaign house party in Manchester, N.H. AP

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have turned explaining their similar positions on immigration reform into a political art form.

Secure the border, they grovel to conservatives worried about “amnesty.” Get a better grip on people who come into the country legally with visas, in case they overstay them. Give legal priority to immigrants who can contribute to the economy. Then — and only then — should the U.S. grant legal status to many of the nearly 11 million people inside the country without authorization.

“We need to control our border first of all,” Bush said last week at a political breakfast in Manchester, New Hampshire.

“The American people, they understand we have an issue that has to be confronted,” Rubio said at a Manchester house party a few hours later. “But they’re not willing to do it or even talk about it until you show them — not tell them, you better show them — that illegal immigration is under control.”

That’s what grass-roots Republican voters want to hear. But they remain skeptical of Rubio and Bush, at least in New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first presidential primary next year after the Iowa caucuses. Neither state is known for its demographic diversity: The population of both states is more than 93 percent white, according to the U.S. Census, and only 5 percent of residents are foreign-born.

Immigration presents a challenge for Bush, the former Florida governor who has yet to declare his 2016 presidential candidacy, and Rubio, the U.S. senator who’s already running. Both back granting legal status to the nearly 11 million people already in the country illegally.

They’re not the only contenders struggling with immigration. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who along with Rubio and Bush is considered to have a real shot at the GOP nomination, has recently gone back and forth on his stance.

Bush, 62, more forcefully defends the importance of immigrants to the fabric of America, but he says the country doesn’t necessarily have to nationalize the ones already here. However, he previously supported a path to citizenship.

Rubio, 43, was burned politically for his attempt to pass comprehensive reform in Congress two years ago. He now speaks more carefully on the subject, but he remains open to giving unauthorized immigrants U.S. citizenship.

Both criticize President Barack Obama’s executive immigration actions. The first, known as DACA, grants temporary legal status to immigrants brought into the country illegally as children. The second, known as DAPA, would among other things extend that permission to some of their parents. DAPA is tied up in court and has not yet taken effect.

Bush would repeal both orders. So would Rubio, eventually, though he would leave the first one in place for some time to avoid widespread “disruption” for young people and the businesses where they work. That position, which Rubio explained last week in a series of Spanish-language television interviews, resulted in backlash from conservatives who objected to the notion that DACA might be worth preserving, at least for a while.

Bush heard the immigration criticism in person after explaining his views at an April 16 town hall-style meeting held in a 19th-century clubhouse in Concord.

“I don’t buy it,” Charles Pewitt fired at Bush. “I don’t think that the vast majority of the American people support mass immigration and increased legal immigration, or legalization, or any other schemes that will bring more immigrants into the country. So you’re going to have a tough sell.”

“Well,” Bush responded, “that’s my job. My job is not to back down on my beliefs.”

“It’s not a zero-sum game in my mind,” he added. “A person coming that can make a contribution creates an opportunity for the next person. That’s what’s always allowed us to prosper and move forward.”

Pewitt, 46, later told reporters that Bush’s position is a campaign dud. “I don’t think he’s going to win on this issue, but I do appreciate that he’s taken a solid stand,” said Pewitt, who described his occupation as doing “as little as possible.”

“It’s going to be a good fight within the Republican Party. It’s coming. There’s a civil war — it’s going to be a brawl.”

Nonsense, countered Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committee member, when he overheard Pewitt. “I’m from the other side, thinking that the war is over,” Duprey said. “The Republicans who run and say, ‘No amnesty’ — that’s a slogan, not a plan. People in New Hampshire are practical.”

There was no intra-GOP war talk at an April 17 house party for Rubio in Manchester, where he espoused the same policy Bush laid out in his 2013 book, Immigration Wars, in which he argues for the U.S. to issue immigrant visas based on work skills rather than family reunification. Rubio makes a similar case in the policy book he published earlier this year, American Dreams.

In the Manchester living room, Rubio stressed he no longer stands by the comprehensive reform he and seven other senators pushed in 2013. “If you want a talking point every two years for your election, then keep promising people a one-size-fits-all, massive immigration bill,” he said. “But I can tell you the votes aren’t there, and neither is the public support.”

He now backs a step-by-step process, which reform advocates consider disingenuous, since it doesn’t guarantee that the legal status of undocumented immigrants will be addressed after bolstering border security.

“It’s a very clever, contorted position to try to climb back from his support for comprehensive immigration reform in order to pander to skeptical primary voters in the GOP nominating race, but it’s not at all realistic,” Frank Sharry, executive director of the Washington advocacy group America’s Voice, told reporters earlier this month. “From our point of view he’s gone from being a hero to something of a typical politician.”

Some of Rubio’s own Senate colleagues also have been critical. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who backs Hillary Clinton for president, told ABC News last week that Rubio “folded like a cheap shotgun” on immigration. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is testing his own Republican presidential run, told the Wall Street Journal that he stood by the 2013 bill, which he co-sponsored with Rubio. “What good am I to anybody if I don’t believe in my own work product?” Graham said.

Facing voters on the ground, Rubio’s only awkward moment came at a state GOP conference in Nashua. A woman who said her grandparents hailed from Quebec bemoaned Spanish-language signs at Lowe’s hardware stores and “hit two for Spanish” options on customer-service calls. She asked Rubio whether not forcing immigrants to learn English is “enabling” them to keep speaking Spanish.

The woman appeared unaware that Rubio translates his own news conferences into his parents’ native tongue.

The senator tried to be diplomatic. “Here’s the bottom line: If you don’t speak English, you’re not going to prosper economically in America,” he said.

But elsewhere on Rubio’s trip, there was an acknowledgment that learning another language can also help English-speakers prosper.

After Rubio spoke to a classroom full of students at Manchester Community College, he made his way to a welding-skills shop. Along one of the corridors was a bulletin board with a poster that riffed on the British World War II motivational slogan, Keep Calm and Carry On.

“Keep calm,” the poster read, “and learn Spanish.”

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