Jeb Bush Mirrors the GOP's Complicated History With Immigration

The former Florida governor has shifted his position on immigration, just like the party at large.

When it comes to immigration, it's not only a conundrum for the Republican Party. It's complicated for Jeb Bush too.

In the more than 12 years since Bush last ran for office, the party he once knew has shifted. The rise of the tea party has nudged the GOP further to the right, and the issue of immigration is smack-dab in the center of the party's ideological divide.

The GOP is so split over what to do about millions of illegal immigrants living in the shadows that it has become paralyzed on the issue. After the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill in 2013, the Republican-controlled House sat idly by and let the clock run out.

Enter Bush, who is now officially—and actively—exploring a White House bid. The two-term Florida governor is akin to a GOP time capsule, a politician who harkens back to what the Republican Party once was: pragmatic and budget-slashing with a dose of compassion for one of Florida's key demographics—immigrants. When he was elected governor in 1998, Bush won more than 60 percent of the Latino vote.

His success with Latino voters was twofold. For one, many of his constituents were Cuban-Americans who tended to lean conservative to begin with. The other was that Bush had deep connections to the Latino community from his early days as the Dade County GOP chairman. A Latin American studies major in college, Bush speaks fluent Spanish. His wife, Columba, was born and raised in Mexico. On the campaign trail, Bush made the Latino community a priority—something party strategists have been prodding Republican candidates to do more of in recent years. If he chooses to run in 2016, immigration activists are optimistic that he'll change the GOP's approach to immigration.

"It is clear that within the Republican Party there is a very active debate about how to welcome immigrants in the party, but also have a solution," says Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "Jeb Bush is going to force this debate. All signs point to him not backing away from having that conversation."

If he does run, however, Bush won't just force the GOP to reckon with its relationship with the Latino community. His own policy shifts on immigration will get a hard look, too.

Over time, Bush's ideas of what to do with immigrants who are living in the U.S. illegally have changed, flipping back and forth from an all-out deportation policy he supported in 1994 to his support for a path to citizenship.

In 2012, Bush was beyond the mainstream of the Republican Party. As GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney was serving up tea-party talking points and encouraging immigrants to "self-deport," Bush was criticizing Romney's approach and promoting a path to citizenship for some of the 11 million immigrants who were in the country illegally.

"You have to deal with this issue. You can't ignore it, and so either a path to citizenship, which I would support ... [or a path] to residency of some kind," Bush said in a PBS interview with Charlie Rose.

The comment positioned Bush as a party elder in 2012, the grown-up in the room who was willing to point out the errors of the GOP even if it meant irritating immigration hard-liners.

Less than a year later, however, with a group of bipartisan senators pushing to include a path to citizenship in an immigration bill, Bush backed off his full-throttled embrace of citizenship. In his 2013 book Immigration Wars, Bush backtracked, writing that he supported "permanent residency" for illegal immigrants.

"It is absolutely vital to the integrity of our immigration system that actions have consequences," Bush wrote.

He later tried to clarify his position during an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, during which he said he would support either a path to citizenship or legalization if either managed to find its way into legislation.

"This book was written to try to get people that were against reform to be for it. And it is a place where I think a lot of conservatives should feel comfortable," Bush said.

His evolution on immigration may seem minor. After all, a path to citizenship and legal residency both allow immigrants to stay in the U.S. But Bush's wavering on the issue underscores the key quagmire Republicans running for president have faced in the last several election cycles. In order to win the general election, the Republican nominee must win a significant share of the Latino vote, but in order to seal the nomination, that same candidate must serve up the kind of build-the-electrified-border-fence-and-fill-the-moat-with-alligators rhetoric that many primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are looking for.

Steve Deace, an Iowa-based Republican pundit, says Bush "will never be president" because of the position he has staked out on immigration.

"He is a full-bore apostle for amnesty," Deace says, noting that immigration has become more of a concern for primary voters now that President Obama has moved forward on executive action to protect 5 million immigrants from deportation. "If he is the Republican candidate, we can cancel the election and tell Hillary to start measuring the drapes."

For Bush, walking the line on immigration might be even harder than it was for John McCain and Romney.

"It's a fine balance to strike the right tone on immigration in the primary," says Brian Ballard, a top GOP fundraiser in Florida. "We must find a way, however, to reach out to more than just the right wing of our party."

Romney never recovered among Latino voters after coming out against the Dream Act and saying immigrants should self-deport. He won just 27 percent of the Latino vote in 2012, down several points from McCain, who won 31 percent in 2008. McCain too fell into the primary trap in 2008 when he backed away from a comprehensive immigration bill he had supported in the Senate while trying to win the GOP's presidential nomination. McCain said at the time that the shift was nothing more than "a lesson learned about what the American people's priorities are. And their priority is to secure the borders."

Those close to Bush, however, say they don't expect the former governor to evolve anymore on immigration even under the pressure of a presidential primary. They are confident that the way he delivers his message will be enough to quell the concerns of conservative voters.

"His rhetoric is different, but there is no doubt that what he is looking for is to come up with solutions that are based on his conservative principles," says Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. "The easy thing for him to do would be to stir up different segments within the party. That has never been Governor Bush's style. You are not going to see him changing who he is in order to get elected."

And Bush may not have as many presidential contenders pushing him to the right as Romney had in 2012. Bush might be going head-to-head against Florida's Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants who embraced a path to citizenship when he worked on the comprehensive immigration legislation in the Senate in 2013. Another potential competitor, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, has said he is open to legal residency for immigrants in the U.S. illegally. And, while he has the fieriest rhetoric among them, even Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has said there needs to be immigration reform.

Bush has wavered at times on where he stands precisely on immigration, but so have many of the other potential 2016 contenders. Rubio backed away from his support of the Senate bill after serious backlash from conservative pundits and politicians. Paul says he supports immigration reform, but was caught on camera sneaking away from a confrontation with a "Dreamer" at an Iowa picnic. Observers say that what Bush has going for him is that over the last decade, his tone has been consistent. A 1986 Miami Herald story noted one of his son's first words were "agua and jugo and aqui," which translate into "water," "juice," and "here." Bush's experience has provided him with a different perspective than Romney or McCain had.

For GOP candidates, tone has often been a first stumbling block. For Bush, he's comfortable communicating with the Latino community so much so that he cut ads in Spanish in support of candidates in Colorado and Arizona during the 2014 election cycle.

Bush has said repeatedly that it is not possible, nor is it humane, to tear 11 million immigrants from U.S. soil, to separate families, or to push people away from the U.S. when pulling immigrants out of the shadows could be a boom for tax revenue and economic growth. Unlike some others in his party who focus squarely on how illegal immigration undercuts the "rule of law," Bush has provided an explanation instead of condemnation for those who come to the U.S. illegally.

"Yes, they broke the law, but it's not a felony. It is an act of love," Bush said in April 2014 during an interview at the George H.W. Bush presidential library in Texas. "It's an act of commitment to your family. I honestly think that is a different kind of crime. There should be a price paid, but it shouldn't rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families."

Bush's statement invited a heaping dose of skepticism from the party's conservative base—the small but vocal wing of the party that often refers to any solution that shields the 11 million from mass deportations as "amnesty." Still, Bush defended his comment again at a fundraiser days later.

Whether it's Bush or another candidate, the stark political reality for the Republican on the party's ticket in 2016 is that Republicans must improve their performance among Latino voters. As 2012 proved, it's no longer possible to win a national race with white votes alone.