In the spring of 2002, a young Florida state representative named Marco Rubio sized up one of his mentors, Jeb Bush.
“He’s practically Cuban, just taller,” Rubio quipped to a journalist. “He speaks Spanish better than most of us.”
Few could dispute Rubio’s inclusion of Bush in a kind of honorary Hispanics club. Here was a highly consequential Republican governor, a conservative juggernaut who slashed government payrolls and tangled with teachers unions, who also happened to fit in seamlessly with Hispanics. Bush, who is married to a Mexican American woman, would go on to champion the Dream Act. He’d tout driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and in-state college tuition breaks for their children.
Now, a little more than a decade later, the mentor and the protege are crowded together in the cramped top tier of contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Their possible rivalry over a job they each seem intent on chasing is one of the most deliciously awkward political narratives in America today.
Both men embody an aspiration of Republicans: a chance at luring the growing Hispanic electorate that so overwhelmingly rejected the party in the last presidential election. What’s so fascinating is how they’ve suddenly reversed roles. Bush once appeared more moderate than Rubio, and most other top Republicans, on immigration. Now he’s abruptly backflipped to his protege’s right on the key issue of creating a path to citizenship, triggering a furor along the way.
And all because of a book.
“Immigration Wars,” which Bush co-authored with Clint Bolick, an activist conservative lawyer, was surely intended to play to one of Bush’s strengths. Instead, it has prompted a critical reexamination of the former Florida governor and suggestions that this skilled politician and deep thinker might be a bit rusty six years after leaving office.
The hubbub is over a small but important part of this sober, substantive and detailed explication of America’s immigration miasma. In the book, Bush — as any cable-news viewer should know by now — reverses his previous stance and declares that he opposes a path to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country illegally.
That jarring statement distracts from the sweep of the book, which in 225 pages of text (generously double-spaced) presents a sophisticated take on an issue that often gets reduced to polemical bullet points. Far from being an anti-immigrant screed, “Immigration Wars” often reads like an ode to immigration, with Bush arguing forcefully and convincingly for policies that would encourage more — not fewer — migrants to enter the country.
It’s a curious time for Bush to harden his position on immigration by opposing a path to citizenship, considering the fact that Republicans are desperate to woo Hispanics. Even the Cuban American Rubio, once an avowed opponent of such a path, has been coming around to the idea lately, joining a bipartisan effort in the Senate to change the nation’s immigration laws. Bush has tried to backpedal: In interviews this past week he made qualified statements in favor of a path to citizenship and has explained that he wrote the book last year. But these limp attempts are undercut by the tone he takes in print.
“A grant of citizenship is an undeserving reward for conduct that we cannot afford to encourage,” he writes.
Bush deems the nation’s immigration system “not repairable” and argues for a wholesale reworking. He would like to wrest control from the Department of Homeland Security and — contrary to the typical Republican rhetoric about erasing government agencies — create a whole new agency “whose mission is consistent with a national policy of promoting immigration.” Alternatively, he suggests giving immigration over to a new unit within the Commerce Department.
While extolling immigration’s virtues, Bush also embraces a punitive approach. He wants the estimated 11 million undocumented people in the United States to plead guilty and pay a fine in return for a chance at legal residency — but not citizenship.
He takes pains to denounce the notion of spurring “self-deportation” by shutting off work opportunities for undocumented immigrants, an idea that so undermined Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But the process Bush prescribes sounds remarkably similar.
“Anyone who does not come forward under this process will be subject to automatic deportation, unless they choose to return voluntarily to their native countries,” he writes.
Earth to Jeb: When an illegal immigrant voluntarily leaves the country for fear of deportation, that’s a form of self-deportation.
He also wields the threat of deportation in another, potentially significant way. Citing Pew research, Bush writes that nearly half of America’s illegal immigrants entered the country legally but are now in violation of the law for overstaying their visas.
“We need to swiftly deport individuals who overstay their visas rather than allowing them to stay indefinitely or to pursue multiple appeals,” Bush writes. He leaves unclear whether he’s advocating rounding up somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 million people who’ve overstayed visas or simply cracking down on new violators. Either way, the number of deportations could be staggering.
But for most of the book, Bush sheds this almost unrecognizably stern persona and settles back into the Jeb we once knew. The man who met his wife, Columba Garnica de Gallo, on the central square of Leon, Mexico, four decades ago argues that raising the number of legal immigrants could improve our gross domestic product by increasing the size of the workforce. Immigrants tend to be young, he writes. So, allowing market forces — such as the demand for labor and entrepreneurship — to increase the flow across our borders could help America address the demographic crisis of too many retirees and too few working-age residents. And he notes that cities with high immigrant populations tend to have better credit ratings.
What’s more, Bush posits that immigrants — arriving here during their prime working years — are more likely than native-born Americans to be net contributors to the economy, rather than consumers of social services. “Immigrants also are healthier and consume fewer healthcare services than native-born Americans,” he writes. And he cites research that says immigrants, legal and illegal, commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.
“Immigration is an integral part of America’s lifeblood. . . . Almost by definition, people who move to another place not through compulsion but by choice are more fervent about their destination than many of those who were born there by chance,” he writes.
Bush ridicules the border-security-first crowd, those politicians and policymakers who seem to set up a Sisyphean task of waiting for a “magic moment” when the border is certified as secure before changing immigration laws. They are “fighting yesterday’s war,” he writes. Instead, he advocates coupling border security measures — including biometric verification systems with fingerprint ID cards, a controversial issue sure to rile Hispanic advocates — with systemic changes.
The former governor argues that politicians should not be bullied into inaction by a “lethal” combination of “ideological rancor, demagoguery, and political cowardice.” But his shifts in tone and policy make him sound a bit unsteady, as if he’s fearful that his previous moderation wouldn’t be acceptable to the Republican primary voters he may court in a few years. Certainly not what might have been expected from a politician who made his mark by showing a willingness to defy conventional thinking and herd mentality.
Bush laments the “tragic lost opportunity” of the last presidential election, saying a Republican Party that failed to recognize the changing makeup of America was hobbled by “largely self-inflicted” wounds.
In writing this odd but irresistible book, Bush has surely inflicted some wounds on himself, too, at least with moderates who thought they knew him well.
But if 2016 is his aim, he has plenty of time to heal.
Manuel Roig-Franzia is a Washington Post staff writer and the author of “The Rise of Marco Rubio.”
Forging an American Solution
By Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick
Threshold. 274 pp. $27