Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, and the Republican Schism on Immigration

The establishment and the outsider tangled Tuesday night, illustrating just how far apart the party’s rival wings are on the issue.

AP Photo/Morry Gash

Rarely has the Republican Party’s split on immigration been as clear as Tuesday night, when the GOP’s high-profile candidates clashed over what to do about millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

Business mogul Donald Trump unleashed his immigration talking points on stage. America needed a wall, he said to protect the country from illegal immigration: “We will have a wall. The wall will be built. The wall will be successful. If you don't think walls work, ask Israel,” Trump said. “The wall works, believe me. Properly done. Believe me.”

Only this time, Trump was confronted with two of the party’s moderates who are vying for a gasp at the spotlight as they struggle to break through in a crowded and conservative primary field. Both former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich leaped at the opportunity to strike rationale into the heart of Trump’s immigration policy. Part of Trump’s plan has included deporting the roughly 11 million immigrants already residing in the country illegally.

“Come on, folks, we all know you can't pick them up and ship them across the border,” Kasich announced on stage before calling Trump’s plan plain “silly.”

“It is not an adult argument. It makes no sense,” Kasich said.

Kasich said he supported a plan to allow many of the immigrants already in the country to get on a path to legal status. Bush chimed in that if more Republican candidates continued to talk like Trump rather than Kasich, the GOP would endanger itself ahead of the general election.

“They’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now as they hear this,” Bush said about the immigration debate in the GOP.

Ever since Donald Trump entered the GOP race and disparaged the immigrants crossing the border into the United States illegally, the Republican Party has struggled to make inroads with Latino voters. The Republican National Committee had hoped this cycle would be an opportunity for Republicans to improve upon Mitt Romney’s paltry performance with the Hispanic electorate, which yielded him just 27 percent of the vote. Instead, many conservatives vying for Trump supporters have found themselves trying to imitate Trump’s tone rather than distance themselves from it. Tuesday night, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said he was sick and tired of his law and order immigration policies being viewed as anti-immigrant.

“The politics of it would be very different if a bunch of lawyers and bankers were crossing the Rio Grande,” Cruz said.

But, at the end of the day, the tussle on stage reminded voters of one thing: The GOP is about as divided as ever on the issue of immigration.