Politics

Jeb’s Failed Toughpander

Secret Bush Decoder? Jeb Bush surprised many people recently by seeming to advocate a crackdown on one variety of illegal immigrant — those who have overstayed their visas:

“A great nation needs to control its border, not just at the border [but]… but also the 40 percent of the people who come here legally [with a legal visa] and overstayed their bounds. We need to find out where they are and politely ask them to leave.” [Emphasis added]

Was Jeb threatening to deport the roughly 4 million visa overstayers, Byron York asked? Who is he, Mitt Romney? (Maybe Jeb was tougher than Romney, since Jeb was tracking them down, not relying on them to “self-deport.”) When foreigners decide to stay here after their visas expire, isn’t that as much an “act of love” as if they sneak across the border? Presente.org, a possibly all-sombrero Latino advocacy group, pounced:  “Jeb Bush is apparently putting immigrant and Latino bashing front and center for his presidential campaign.”

Ha. I can see two theories for why Jeb said what he said.

1) Jeb wants to argue that he favors a secure border.  If that’s going to happen he also logically has to stop visa overstays — 40% of the illegal population, as he says — in addition to policing the Rio Grande. Otherwise there’s a big hole in the immigration system.

2)  Visa overstays are less likely to be Latinos than border-crossers. Bush needs to win over Latinos, but he also needs to show he’s not a total wimp on immigration. Solution: crack down on those illegals who are least likely to be Latino! A visa crackdown might even appeal to Latinos — a possibility that was driven home to me  during my quixotic ** 2010 Senate run when Latino voters  complained about all the focus on border-crossers while visa overstayers were home free. In effect — actually, in so many words — the argument was: ‘You’re cracking down on brown people while you leave all those Irish “tourists” alone.’ Not an unreasonable point. Bush’s anti-overstayer stand might have seemed like a chance to appear tough while maintaining — even deepening — his pander to Latinos. Unfortunately for him, Presente.org wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to ethnicize opposition to any kind of deportation.

These two theories aren’t incompatible. Clearly, Bush didn’t completely think through the symbolism of his visa position (e.g. that it would require lots of unpleasant, possibly family-sundering deportations from the interior of the country).*** But why didn’t he? Maybe precisely because it didn’t seem like something that would anger Latino voters.

A thought experiment: Is it conceivable that Bush would showily advocate deporting (even “politely”) the many thousands who make it into the interior by illegally jumping our Southern boundary?  I think the answer is ‘no’– even if a secure border requires it. The border-jumpers are mostly Latinos, after all. The idea of deporting them would set off consultant/pollster alarm bells and get cut from any Bush text. Why take a risky pro-legalization position in order to win over  the Latino vote and then spoil the Hispander in the next paragraph? And Jeb is all about the Hispander.

_____

** Probably the nicest word for it.

*** That’s true even if, as a Bush spokesperson later contended, Jeb only plans his crackdown for future visa overstayers.