Jeb Bush’s no-citizenship plan scrambles immigration debate

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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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.

“GOP leaders say they’re debating an immigration rewrite to boost their support among Hispanics, but Bush’s proposal would just disadvantage Republicans in the 2014 and 2016 elections,” he said. “Why would they think this will win Hispanic votes, when they’re offering half a loaf, while the other guys are offering the whole loaf and ice-cream Sundaes for dessert?”

Bush’s plan would “give the Democrats a whole new issue to beat [Republicans] up,” said Steve Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a reform group that wants to halve the annual immigration of 1 million people. “All the Democrats have to do is point out is that … ‘Republicans want a Jim Crow situation to continue,’” he added.

Worse, by calling for an economy where many immigrant workers lack political rights, Bush’s proposal “is antithetical to our value system,” he said. If enacted, “the Democrats would become the party of equality, and the Republicans would become the party of second-class citizens,” he said.

Immigration boosters are already using those arguments.

“Legalization without a path to citizenship is not the American way,” said a tweet from Jorge Ramos, the influential immigration-boosting news anchor at Univision. “Very risky to create a new underclass.”

Bush outlined his proposal yesterday on the Today Show. He argued that United States can deter future illegal immigration by denying citizenship to illegals who get amnesty.

Without citizenship, immigrants can’t legally vote or bring in relatives.

“We can’t continue to make illegal immigration an easier path than legal immigration. … I think there has to be some difference between people who come here legally and illegally,” Bush said.

But for many immigrants, the benefits of legal residency are far greater. Residency provides immigrants with work permits, access to many welfare programs, free education for their children and citizenship for their newborns.

Bush’s immigration plan, which is outlined in his new book, titled “Immigration Wars,” would also allow companies to import workers in place of hiring American workers.

The impact of Bush’s proposals was disputed by activists.

Many advocates for greater immigration declined to publicly analyze Bush’s proposal, but some suggested the Bush plan would hinder passage of the immigration rewrite.

“Bush’s full proposal isn’t out until Tuesday, when his new book hits shelves, so it’s difficult to tell how much of his stance is just red meat rhetoric,” said an article in TPM, a progressive website.

Bush may seek the GOP nomination in 2016, and his new stance may limit the political flexibility of other GOP leaders, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, said the progressive website.

“Assuming Bush is an actual hard ‘no’ on citizenship, the implications could be dangerous for reform … [because Bush] could pressure other likely hopefuls on their right flank, making them more nervous about backing congressional efforts to pass reform,” said the TPM article.

In contrast, Camarota suggested Bush’s move might help some GOP leaders endorse an amnesty bill.

Many Republican legislators are torn between the business-minded Republicans who endorse large-scale immigration, and their base voters, who fear the immigrants’ impact on Americans’ wages and jobs in an enduring recession, he said. (RELATED: Immigration group says polls showing support for pathway to citizenship are all wrong)

Some of the equivocating legislators may side with the business groups if they think the Bush plans can help them downplay the amnesty portion of the bill, he said.

“It is a way of tricking the American people who are reluctant into support another amnesty, by pretending it not generous,” Camarota said.

“The Republican Party recognizes they will alienate their voters if they support this bill … [so] they’re looking for something split the difference,” he said. “But it is still an amnesty, so you’re still alienating your voters.”

Bush’s proposal protects the GOP from a backlash by ethnic lobbies and business groups once the public defeats the bill, said Mehlman, whose group is rallying voters against the rewrite.

The Bush proposal couldn’t get majority support on the Senate floor, but “if this blows up, the Republicans will say the Democrats opposed a reasonable offer,” he said.

Top Democrats will give up citizenship to win passage of the immigration law, Camarota predicted. “If push comes to shove, they will concede on this …  just because they know in a few years they will get it,” because the public doesn’t want a two-tier society, he said.

But Camarota also said Bush’s offer of a two-tier society may give equivocating Democrats a popular and uplifting rationale to oppose amnesty, despite fierce pressure from progressives and ethnic lobbies.

The swing-voting Democrats include Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Camarota said.

However, the simplest and best approach for the GOP and the swing-voting Democrats is to oppose the amnesty and the importation of new workers, he said.

“Their best bet on this issue is to point to the incredible unemployment numbers, to point to the general decline in wages at the bottom end of the market for decades … [and become] the party that stands up for workers and taxpayers, that says ‘Let’s enforce the law and let the [illegal] immigrants go home,” he said.

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