Jeb Bush and the politics of immigration

August 30, 2012

Jeb Bush’s message on immigration is directed as much at his own party as it is at the opposing one. And if there is a GOP migration toward moderation on the subject in the coming years, he might well be at the forefront of the movement.


(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The former Florida Republican governor spoke at a Washington Post/Bloomberg breakfast in Tampa on Thursday morning, and said that while he does not favor President Obama's recent executive order which stopped the deportation of certain young illegal immigrants, he does support the DREAM Act, a measure stalled in Congress which would grant legal residency and a path to citizenship for young people brought into the country illegally in their youth.

“Having a solution to the fact that we have all of these young people, many of whom are making great contributions, don't have a connection to their – to their parents' former country, yeah, of course I'm for it,” Bush said.

Immigration has been a tricky issue for the GOP, which is populated with political figures who have adopted strict, hard-line postures that some in the moderate wing of the party worry will alienate a fast-growing Hispanic population that could play an increasingly influential role in electoral politics.

Bush offered a warning for immigration hard-liners: Their message is not a winner.

“The interesting thing is that the most vociferous anti-immigrant kind of candidates lose. Probably have noticed, but they lose in primaries, they lose in general elections,” he said.

For Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, immigration has been a difficult issue to navigate. The conservative base of the GOP opposes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. At the same time, Romney can’t afford to alienate Hispanic voters. So, he has largely refrained from saying much about it.

Earlier this year, Bush urged Romney to broaden his message when it comes to immigration, and to “make it an economic issue as much as it is a question of the rule of law.”

When it comes to Hispanic voters, Bush said the issues that are atop the minds of other voters – jobs and the economy – are also the ones they care most about. But immigration is still important, Bush said Thursday, because addressing it is one way of building credibility with the Hispanic community.

“It’s a gateway issue, because it's an issue that allows you ... [to] show some sensitivity, it allows you to be heard,” he said. “And I think that's kind of the right way to look at it, that it's, it's an issue that has relevance.

Bush also offered a stern rebuke to Obama on immigration, and accused him of playing politics. Earlier this summer, the president signed an executive order that stopped the deportation of certain young illegal immigrants. Bush said he saw Obama’s action as a way of undercutting Romney and winning good will from Hispanic voters, not as an effective piece of policy.

“This is so cynical. And he – I mean, if you're, if you, if the law says clearly that you have a case-by-case right to review cases, and you blanket say 800,000 people comply, that is way beyond the purview of executive power,” Bush said.

Bush will address the convention Thursday night. He’s a popular figure in Republican circles, owing to his appeal to the party establishment as well as conservatives, who like his focus on education reform. Immigration has not been a dominant topic of discussion so far at the gathering, and it will be interesting to see how much (if any) of his speech Bush devotes to the topic.

“I'm not running for anything and I can speak my mind,” Bush said at the end of the Thursday morning breakfast.

That may be the case right now. But he was mentioned as a possible presidential candidate this cycle and can reasonably expect his name to surface again in future elections.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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