Bush told the audience that reform would mean increasing border security and expanding the possibilities for legal immigration -- “...but it also means dealing with the 11 million undocumented workers that are here in this country, 11 million people that should come out from the shadows and receive earned legal status."
“This country does not do well when people lurk in the shadows," he continued. "This country does spectacularly well when everybody can pursue their God-given abilities.”
The Florida Republican stands at odds with most other candidates in the GOP field on that issue. Most of his potential rivals remain opposed to legislation that would provide a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants -- and it will likely become a key issue in the Republican primary. Already Bush has faced criticism from conservative leaders to his right who accuse him of being overly moderate.
But the bulk of Bush's speech was about his faith and how it guided his efforts as a public servant. Notably, he spoke about converting to the Catholic faith after losing his first bid for governor, stressing the role it has played in his life.
“When I joined the Church, like millions before me and millions who will come after me, I discovered in Christ the grace to do the Lord’s work. There’s no more powerful or liberating influence on this earth than the Christian conscience in action,” he told the audience. “And today in America it is important to respect and protect Christians acting on their faith. … For a loving society, Christians need to have the space to be able to act on their conscience.”
In his opening remarks, the likely presidential candidate spoke warmly about his wife Columba -- who was born and raised in Mexico -- and about his "bicultural and bilingual" children. He also gave a special greeting to his parents, former president George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, who were in attendance.
Bush spoke at length about his achievements as governor of Florida, emphasizing on several occasions ways in which Hispanics in his state benefited during his time in office. He also stressed the way in which his policies can help communities that have “traditionally been left behind.”
“The share of Florida’s Hispanic students that now attending universities is 25 percent of all university students in Florida -- and guess what, the graduation rate for college is now roughly on par with white students,” he told the audience.
The Florida Republican alternated between Spanish and English throughout his speech – one at least one occasion mid-sentence – demonstrating his fluency with the language.
“To finish, I want to again give thanks to everyone here. I hope that you keep growing, achieving your mission of opening the hearts of all people here – in Latin-American, of course, but also here in the United States – to Christ,” Bush said in Spanish at the end of his remarks.