Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's current views on immigration seem… (Eric Gay / Associated Press )
WASHINGTON – When Jeb Bush sat down last summer to write an ambitious plan to overhaul the immigration system, prominent conservatives were calling for mass deportations as a solution to the problem of having 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
In that environment, the former Florida governor and possible 2016 presidential hopeful came up with a proposal that he felt could bring conservatives to the table while simultaneously luring Latino voters to the GOP.
Half a year later, the proposal, fleshed out in a newly released book, has landed in the midst of a radically changed political environment. Bush’s proposal – that illegal immigrants could become permanent legal residents, but not citizens – would have been toward the left end of Republican debate last summer. Now it is more conservative than the stance taken by several Republican senators, including Bush’s friend and Florida protege, Marco Rubio.
And Bush, who had hoped his book, "Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution," would help set the agenda for his party, has instead spent the last two days struggling to find his footing and fending off accusations that he was undermining Senate negotiations and siding with hard-liners in the House.
“The idea of immediately giving illegal immigrants a pathway to become citizens was seen as a wildly liberal idea. A year later it strikes some as wildly conservative,” said Clint Bolick, the conservative Arizona lawyer who wrote the book with Bush. “It just shows how quickly the political terrain is shifting.”
Bush has long been seen as a moderate voice within the Republican Party on immigration, but his proposal was slapped down as too harsh by some Republicans in the Senate who have been trying to forge a compromise on the issue.
Bush’s proposal “undercuts what we are trying to do,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the eight senators working on drafting an immigration overhaul bill. “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.”
As Bush’s critics were quick to note, the former Florida governor had previously spoken in favor of a path to citizenship. Last spring, in a television interview with Charlie Rose, he said: “You have to deal with this issue. You can't ignore it. And so, either a path to citizenship — which I would support and that does put me probably out of the mainstream of most conservatives — or a path to legalization, a path to residency of some kind.”
By contrast, in the book, he wrote that “those who violated the laws can remain, but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship.” He would allow those brought illegally to the U.S. as children to become citizens, however. His proposal would not greatly beef up border security.
Instead, he argues in the book that greatly increasing the number of future work visas for agricultural and other low-skilled jobs would mean fewer people trying to cross the border illegally. To add those visas, Bush would eliminate programs that currently give preference to visas for family unification.
In television appearances Tuesday, Bush tried to move back toward his earlier position, emphasizing that the book had been written last year.
“So going forward — we wrote this last year — going forward, if there is a difference, you can craft that in law where you can have a path to citizenship where there isn't an incentive for people to come illegally, I'm for it,” he said on MSNBC. “I don't have a problem with that. I don't see how you do it, but I'm not smart enough to figure out every aspect of a really complex law."
Democratic leaders jumped on the apparent flip-flop. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Bush had made “a fool of himself.”
“Let's wait for a few months to see how Jeb Bush changes his mind again,” Reid told reporters. Bush is “not evolving, he's devolving.... He keeps going backwards.”
Republicans who have previously been aligned with Bush were left scratching their heads.
“It’s a little bit mind-boggling,” said Alfonso Aguilar, a Republican strategist at the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a Washington-based group. “This is a dramatic departure from previous positions he [Bush] had clearly articulated.”