After years of building a reputation as the “good” Republican on immigration, Jeb Bush shocked the reform community on Monday by ruling out a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a position solidly to the right of prominent GOPers like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).
The news stunned immigration activists and aides working on a bill and who have long insisted that anything short of citizenship is a dealbreaker for reform — especially given that Bush was decisively in the pro-citizenship camp just months ago. It also was a head scratcher for political observers, giving Bush an unexpected opening in 2016 to attack not only Rubio, but several possible presidential candidates, as overly liberal on immigration reform.
“Wow,” Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the liberal Center For American Progress, told TPM in an e-mail. “For a guy who has been a luminary on this issue for the GOP, his endorsement of such a regressive policy is deeply troubling.”
The big question going forward, Fitz said, is “whether it cuts Rubio’s legs out from under him” by pressuring his right flank, or merely gives Rubio more power within the bipartisan gang negotiating a bill by demonstrating that conservative concerns about a bill are still a major hurdle that only he can address.
Other reform activists expressed their puzzlement at Bush’s 180-degree turn, which also put him to the right of his brother, former President George W. Bush, who backed a path to citizenship as part of his failed 2006-2007 effort to pass a bipartisan reform bill. Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, pointed out the reversal even put Jeb Bush to the right of Sean Hannity, one of several prominent conservatives who have come out for citizenship since the 2012 election.
“I am more surprised than concerned,” Eliseo Medina, secretary treasurer of SEIU and a longtime advocate of immigration reform, told TPM via e-mail. “I would have expected him to hold up, as he has in the past, the rational wing of the GOP. On this one, he is just flat wrong on the policy and on the politics.”
On the Republican side, an unnamed advisor to Mitt Romney was apoplectic, complaining to the Miami Herald that Bush criticized the Republican nominee during his campaign for his hardline stance only to come up with a conservative-leaning plan himself.
“Where the hell was this Jeb Bush during the campaign?” the advisor said. “He spent all this time criticizing Romney and it turns out he has basically the same position. So he wants people to go back to their country and apply for citizenship? Well, that’s self deportation. We got creamed for talking about that. And now Jeb is saying the same thing.”
Bush responded in an e-mail to the Herald that he did not advocate “self deportation” as defined by Romney. And he’s right: Bush’s plan is still way more progressive than Romney’s 2012 platform in that it would grant at least some legal status to the undocumented population and possibly citizenship to some young undocumented immigrants. One theory making the pro-reform rounds is that Bush crafted his latest plan in the Romney era when it would have been considered a centrist compromise only to be left behind as party leaders sprinted to the left on the issue after his loss.
“If he stays with this new, ‘let them be workers but not citizens’ stance, it will be a political blunder of huge proportions,” Frank Sharry, the executive director of pro-reform America’s Voice, said in a written statement. “At a time when voters are looking for steady, principled leaders and Republicans are supporting citizenship in greater numbers, this should be Jeb Bush’s moment. Yet his disturbing flip-flop on immigration citizenship and tack to the right ahead of a potential presidential primary suggests that he’s misread the moment.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.