Bush Citizenship Stance Spotlights Republican Border Rift

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s conflicting statements on a central issue in the immigration debate underscore divisions among Republicans about allowing undocumented immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

In a new book, Bush proposes that many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the U.S. be offered “permanent legal resident status” rather than citizenship. That’s at odds with Bush’s previous position, as well as that of a bipartisan group of senators working on revisions to immigration law that would eventually allow a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally.

Bush’s proposal “caught me off guard, and it undercuts what we’re trying to do,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of eight lawmakers in the bipartisan group. “I can assure you the Hispanic community has always assumed that, for the trade-offs that I am seeking, there will be a pathway to citizenship.”

Bush, a leading voice in the Republican Party on immigration and Hispanic politics, clarified in interviews this week that he remains open to offering undocumented immigrants a citizenship path, provided it can be done in a way that doesn’t treat them “better than those that have waited patiently to come legally and never get called to come.”

“If a compromise is done dealing with this principle, then I could support such a compromise,” Bush, 60, said in an e-mail to Bloomberg News.

Senators’ Goal

That’s precisely the goal of the lawmakers working on the legislation, said Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, another member of the bipartisan group.

Bush “could support a plan that has a path, so long as it doesn’t give favoritism to those who have violated the law, and that’s exactly what we’re working on,” Rubio told reporters yesterday.

Rubio said he also had gone “back and forth” on the issue of allowing the undocumented to ultimately become citizens.

“I just concluded that it’s not good for the country in the long term to have millions and millions of people who can never become, or are forever prohibited from becoming, citizens,” Rubio said.

Graham said legalizing undocumented immigrants without allowing them full citizenship is the wrong solution, both in terms of policy and politics.

“I don’t like the idea of having millions of people here for their entire life without being able to assimilate into America,” Graham said.

Politically, he added, “We’re not going to be able to pass any bill in the United States Senate without a pathway to citizenship,” given Democratic control of the chamber.

Undocumented Immigrants

The views of Rubio and Graham aren’t shared by many other Republican lawmakers, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte of Virginia. Goodlatte, whose panel has jurisdiction over immigration, has said he couldn’t support citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The issue divides Republicans even as many in the party look for ways to improve its standing among Hispanic voters following the 2012 elections. Exit polls showed that in winning re-election, President Barack Obama beat Republican challenger Mitt Romney by 44 percentage points among Hispanics.

Democrats are watching the Republican fissures with barely disguised glee. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said it’s Rubio who’s led on revamping immigration policy -- not Bush.

“Let’s wait for a few minutes and see how Jeb Bush changes his mind again,” Reid said yesterday. “His opinion on immigration is not evolving, it’s devolving -- he keeps going backwards. I think he’s, frankly, made a fool of himself in the last 24 hours.”

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