WASHINGTON — Accusing politicians of "pounding their chests" on immigration for short-term political gain, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Tuesday that the tone of the debate had been "hurtful" to him and his Mexican-born wife, Columba.
Bush, the younger brother of President Bush, reserved some of his sharpest criticism for conservatives in his own Republican Party, calling it "just plain wrong" to charge illegal immigrants with a felony, as a provision passed by the Republican-led House would do. He also opposed "penalizing the children of illegal immigrants" by denying them U.S. citizenship, an idea backed by some conservatives but not included in the legislation.
"My wife came here legally, but it hurts her just as it hurts me when people give the perception that all immigrants are bad," the Florida governor wrote in an e-mail exchange with The Times.
Gov. Bush has generally avoided injecting himself into national political fights, and he rarely invokes his soft-spoken wife of 32 years in such a public way. But his comments reflect the concern among many Republicans that calls by conservatives for an immigrant crackdown risk alienating Latino voters.
His brother is attempting to navigate a growing rift among Republicans over what to do with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country. The president has proposed a guest-worker program but has not said what should happen to those already here illegally.
Florida is home to millions of residents who were born in other countries. And the Bush brothers, in Florida and Texas, where the president was governor, have been popular with Latino voters.
Both have long advocated open immigration laws, putting them at odds with many in their party.
Longtime friends and associates say the president's relationship with his brother's family, along with his experiences living and working in Texas, contributed to his views on immigration.
The Senate is debating immigration proposals this week, and White House allies are beginning to speak out more forcefully on the issue.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman used a speech Tuesday to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to extol the contributions of immigrants.
In his e-mail, Gov. Bush chastised both politicians and the media for being simplistic on immigration, and he lauded his brother for seeking a civil tone.
"The cumulative effect of some politicians pounding their chests about immigration is hurtful to both of us," he wrote, referring to himself and his brother. "I fear they do so for current political gain at the expense of thoughtful policy over the long term."
Jeb Bush pointed to the political damage wrought 12 years ago by California's Proposition 187, in which the state's voters backed a plan to strip illegal immigrants of public benefits. The initiative was pushed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican. Some analysts have since blamed that campaign for a backlash among Latino voters that has made California reliably Democratic in national elections.
Gov. Bush wrote that Wilson "fell prey" to the short-term political temptations. "I know he felt he was doing the right thing, but matters are worse now and the Republican Party is now the minority party in California," Bush wrote.
Wilson, in a recent interview, rejected the theory that Prop. 187 turned California to the left -- arguing that, instead, he had performed especially well with female voters who later abandoned the GOP over abortion.
Referring to Republicans who shied away from cracking down on illegal immigrants as "gutless," Wilson said they were "intimidated by the fear that they will be charged with racism."
For the Florida governor, though, immigration is a personal matter. He met his wife during a high school exchange program in Mexico, and the two married when he was 21. They settled in Miami in 1980 in part because she would feel comfortable in a heavily Latin city, home to Cubans, Mexicans and thousands of other Spanish-speaking immigrants.
The governor speaks the language fluently. His son, George P. Bush, has cited his Latino heritage in campaign appearances for his father and uncle and is considered an heir to the family political dynasty.
"Columba and I watch the news early in the morning and in the evenings," Bush wrote in the late-night e-mail exchange. "The cumulative effect of the coverage is that immigrants are bad and hurting our country. The coverage is black and white, good and bad, without the nuances that the coverage deserves."
The Florida governor has said he does not intend to run for president in 2008. But he has been mentioned as a potential running mate for another likely candidate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
In his e-mail, Gov. Bush endorsed the idea of a broad guest-worker program encompassing the kinds of low-wage workers sought by farms and factories as well as high-tech professionals from places such as India.
Like his brother, he offered no specificity on how to treat current immigrants and whether they should be granted a path to citizenship.
"The focus should be on protecting our borders rather than these piling on provisions that are punitive to many who have made a great contribution to our country," he wrote. "Along with that, the focus should be on a guest worker program and a means to deal with the millions of long term undocumented workers....
"Frankly," he added, "I also believe we should open up legal immigration to the qualified scientists, innovators, entrepreneurs and others who can additionally add value to our great country."