Jeb Bush's Poorly Timed Flip-Flop on Immigration

When the former Florida governor wrote his new book, he was ahead of the GOP on the issue. By the time it came out, the party had leapfrogged in front of him.

David Manning/Reuters

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush's new book was aimed at nudging a reluctant Republican Party toward reforms that would allow illegal immigrants to live and work without fear of deportation.

But by recommending only legal residency and backing off his past support for citizenship, Bush is throwing cold water over a fledgling deal in the Senate, denting his own reputation as a bold policymaker and stoking speculation that he will run for president in 2016.

None of those things were supposed to happen.

The stunning reversal by one of the Republican Party's leading champions of immigration reform and Hispanic outreach, at least in part, comes down to a colossal political miscalculation.

When Bush and co-author Clint Bolick were writing the book during the 2012 presidential campaign, the GOP was veering far to the right. Republican nominee Mitt Romney had staked out a hardline position against illegal immigration, blasting his primary rivals as pro-amnesty and promoting "self-deportation" for undocumented workers. Bush sent the book to the printer before Christmas -- weeks before a handful of Senate Republicans embraced a sweeping overhaul that, like the proposals backed by Bush's brother, former President George W. Bush, would allow illegal immigrants to earn citizenship.

In other words, Bush's party moved a lot faster than the book-publishing world.

"Gov. Bush has always wanted to move the party towards a bigger solution that would provide residency and a path to legal citizenship, but he knew it would require getting Republicans to the table," Republican strategist Sally Bradshaw, Bush's former chief of staff, said in an email to National Journal. "This book and his recommendations reflect that situation and his attempt to get the GOP talking about a possible solution. The focus of this effort is legal residency and a completely redesigned immigration system."

In an interview Tuesday morning on MSNBC's Morning Joe, Bush started backpedaling off his opposition to citizenship in his book. "If you can craft that in law, where you can have a path to citizenship where there isn't an incentive for people to come illegally, I'm for it," he said. "I don't have a problem with it. I don't see you how you do it, but I'm not smart enough to figure out every aspect of a really complex law."

The bottom line is that in Bush's zeal to kickstart an immigration reform debate in the GOP, he apparently laid the groundwork for his own flip-flop. While he's arguing against citizenship for illegal immigrants in his book because it would give them a leg up over those who applied legally, last year in an interview with Charlie Rose on CBS, he said, "You have to deal with this issue. You can't ignore it, and so either a path to citizenship, which I would support -- and that does put me probably out of the mainstream of most conservatives -- or a path to legalization, a path to residency of some kind."

Despite Bush's intentions to help pave that path, his position on citizenship in the book makes him appear to be at odds with his brother and his former protégé and longtime ally, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who came out in favor of a path to citizenship in January along with a bipartisan group of senators. Exit polls that showed seven of 10 Hispanic voters rejected Romney have pushed Republican Party leaders to rethink the party's immigration policy.

"He sent the book to the printer at a time when he was anticipating the direction of the debate tilting against citizenship. It is clearly contrary to what he has said before," said Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the liberal Center for American Progress. "In hindsight, Americans have always judged severely efforts to deny citizenship to classes of people. Is this really the GOP's path out of the political wilderness?"

What's more, Bush's revamped position on citizenship looks like the maneuvering of a potential presidential candidate who wants to outflank Rubio and appease the conservative, anti-amnesty contingent that dominates GOP primaries. "It is absolutely vital to the integrity of our immigration system that actions have consequences -- in this case, that those who violated the laws can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship," the book says. "It must be a basic prerequisite of citizenship to respect the rule of law."

But the former governor also stakes out a position far to the left of those voters on border security that would only complicate a potential presidential bid. In the book titled Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution, Bush is skeptical of the demand from many conservative Republicans -- including Rubio -- that illegal immigrants cannot seek legal residency until the border is secure. In fact, Bush echoes President Obama by pointing out that the border security is tighter than ever.

"Demanding border security as a prerequisite to broader immigration reform is a good slogan but elusive on the details and measurements," the book says. "What exactly is the magic moment we must wait for before we can fix the broken immigration system?"

Bush is likely to face intense questioning about his changed position on citizenship this week as he embarks on a national book tour and gives a highly anticipated speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington later this month.

Denying that Bush had reversed course, spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof said the book does not "prohibit" illegal immigrants from ever becoming citizens, though it would make the route quite arduous by requiring them to go back to their home country and apply legally.

"The governor's goal is to create a path to bring individuals out of the shadows," Emhof said in a written statement. "I would point out that current law requires legal residency to be achieved before citizenship. I would also point out not everyone who is undocumented wants to become a citizen."

Under the principles outlined by the bipartisan group of senators, including Rubio and Arizona Senator John McCain, illegal immigrants could begin working toward citizenship after paying back taxes, passing a criminal background check, learning English, and holding down a job.

"I think Jeb's book could make it more difficult for Senate Republicans to sell citizenship to their caucus," said Becky Tallent, director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former McCain staffer. "Jeb has always been considered a centrist on immigration."

But while some immigration advocates are worried that Bush's stance will give cover to wary Republicans and blow up any deal that includes citizenship, it reflects a stark political reality. House Republicans are unlikely to accept any proposal that helps illegal immigrants become citizens, unless they are young people in college or the military. Democratic Party leaders have insisted on a much broader pathway to citizenship, but they will be hard-pressed to reject a deal that at least bestows legal status.

"There will not be a path to citizenship bill coming out of the House," said Al Cardenas, a Bush ally and immigration reformer who is chairman of the American Conservative Union. "There seems to be growing support on the GOP side of the House for precisely the solution that Gov. Bush prescribes."

"I think he's being really careful because he is trying to create space for fellow Republicans to do the right thing," said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns at the National Council of La Raza.

Proposals favored by the Obama and the bipartisan group in the Senate would require illegal immigrants, after passing the hurdles to legal residency, to go to the back of the line for citizenship papers. Yet by rejecting a pathway to citizenship, Bush is reinforcing the perception that reformers would give special treatment to illegal immigrants. The confusion reflects the issue's complicated political calculus.

"He may be trying to walk a fine line with all of the sensitivities around this issue, and it certainly demonstrates once again how very unsettled the Republican Party is internally," said Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank. "Even for somebody like Bush who had staked out a position a while ago, it shows Republicans are still searching for where they should be on this issue."