Jeb Bush’s no-citizenship plan scrambles immigration debate

Immigration boosters and critics teamed up to slam former Gov. Jeb Bush’s new proposal to withhold citizenship from the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants who could get work permits and residency under a pending immigration rewrite.

Amid the broad condemnation, however, activists tried to game out how his proposal could sway the bitter arguments and political posturing throughout the immigration controversy.

The plan from the former Florida governor and brother of former President George W. Bush could boost business-friendly GOP legislators’ willingness to support a rewrite, but might also give some Democratic legislators a politically painless way to vote against the unpopular proposals, said the activists.

Bush’s plan quickly prompted criticism from ethnic lobbyists, immigration professionals, internationalists and nationalists.

“If he stays with this new ‘Let them be workers but not citizens’ stance, it will be a political blunder of huge proportions,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which supports amnesty for at least 11 million illegal in the country, green cards for their many foreign relatives and more visas for foreign workers preferred by companies.

“By endorsing the failed concept of a permanent underclass for a mostly Latino group of workers, Bush will put a ceiling on potential Latino voter support” in future elections, Sharry said in a statement. “Let’s hope he clarifies his position in the coming hours to show that he will be a proponent of reform with citizenship in 2013 and not an obstacle.”

Bush “reverses position, says pathway to citizenship not needed in #immigration reform,” said a tweet from La Raza, an ethnic lobby for some Hispanics. “Wrong,” it concluded.

Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which wants to scale back legal and illegal immigration, was even more scathing.