Jeb Bush on How Conservatives Can Reform Immigration

The former Florida governor discusses what he calls an evolution—and some call flip-flopping—of his views on the treatment of undocumented immigrants
Illustration by Jimmy Turrell

During my tenure as ­Florida governor, there was, like, one border patrol agent between Stuart and Jacksonville—an 850-mile stretch. One border patrol agent! Yet the law required that if Florida law enforcement picked up somebody that may not have been here legally, they couldn’t do anything and instead would have to wait in their car until the border patrol agent came. So we said, “Let’s create a cooperative agreement to help the federal government do their jobs.” It was rejected under the Clinton administration. I made the pitch to Attorney General Janet Reno, and she politely listened. Then it was signed during my brother’s second year. Now, after a significant amount of training, state and local law enforcement officers are allowed to assist border patrol.

This doesn’t work unless there’s a shared set of values. And now I’d like to show people that there’s a means by which you can have comprehensive reform as a conservative. If it can be crafted where there’s citizenship over the long haul, that’s fine, too. We’re talking about probably 15, 20 years. The reality, which doesn’t fit the narrative of Washington, is that while [undocumented immigrants] want to be out of the shadows, the majority don’t want to be citizens.

If there’s not a clear path for someone to come legally—which there’s not—they’ll think, “Well, if I can get in illegally, eventually I’ll be able to work, and the policymakers will change the laws again to accommodate me.” We need the laws changed to allow people to apply for legalized status. If that happens, my guess is that the great majority of people who come would want to work. Some might want to stay and be citizens. Others wouldn’t. But that difference of treatment, I think, is important.

My views haven’t changed. I don’t know why it’s hard for everybody to grasp this. It’s not just the question of a path to citizenship or a path to legalization. I’ve been supportive of both. We have to change our laws so that it’s easier for someone to come legally rather than illegally. That’s the point that people haven’t quite grasped. I don’t view that as flip-flopping at all. I’m sorry if I haven’t been able to explain that well. —As told to Elizabeth Dwoskin 

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