Jeb Bush Jumps Back Into Changing Immigration Debate

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

Potential presidential candidate Gov. Jeb Bush jumped back into the GOP’s increasingly hot debate over immigration, with an op-ed article simultaneously calling for the deportation of Central American migrant children and for quick passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

“Except for those deserving few who may demonstrate true cause for asylum or protection from sex trafficking, these children must be returned to their homes in Central America,” said Bush, in a Wednesday op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

The fix for the nation’s immigration problem, Bush said, is a revamp that reduces the number of green cards for the family relatives of recent immigrants, but also increases green cards for people “whose skills and drive will make a difference” to the economy.

“The best antidote to illegal immigration is a functioning system of legal immigration,” Bush wrote. “Congress should not use the present crisis as an excuse to defer comprehensive immigration reform.”

Many GOP insiders and consultants want Congress to pass an immigration rewrite this year, partly to minimize the pro-Democratic turnout by Latino voters in 2016. But the GOP’s populist wing has blocked the Senate’s 2013 immigration rewrite.

Bush’s “must be returned” comment is a sharp change in tone from his comment in April, when he said that many illegal immigrants cross the border in an “act of love” for their dependent families.

“They broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love,” he said at the April 6 event at the George H. W. Bush library.

“It’s an act of commitment to your family,” he said. “It shouldn’t rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families.”

Bush’s new op-ed criticized President Barack Obama. “These children are trying to escape horrific gang violence and dire conditions in their native countries. … We now have a humanitarian crisis on our southern border that demands strong leadership that respects the rule of law,” he said.

“Despite President Obama’s reassurances, few of these children are likely to return home if nothing changes,” he said.

The public debate over immigration has sharply changed in the last month.

Since last October, President Barack Obama has allowed almost 50,000 Central American youths, plus many of 50,000 additional people who arrived in so-called “family units,” to join parents and relatives in the nation’s cities, and to appeal for judicial permission to stay. Roughly 90 percent of the so-called unaccompanied children are teenagers, and nearly all are accompanied by smugglers working for the parents who pay up to $10,000 to have their children delivered to federal agencies in Texas. Under Obama’s policies, the agencies have completed 96 percent of the smugglers’ contracts by delivering the youths and children to the parents, many of whom are in the country illegally.

The migration crisis has made immigration the public’s top political problem, according to a Gallup poll last week, widened the deep political divide between the GOP’s populist base and its donors, and dropped Obama’s support among Latino voters.

On July 22, David Perdue used the immigration issue to snatch a come-from-behind win in GOP’s Georgia Senate primary race from Rep. David Kingston, who was backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. On June 10, economics professor Dave Brat used the issue to defeat the GOP’s House leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, in a shocking primary upset. In Mississippi, immigration-skeptic Chris McDaniel narrowly lost a dispute runoff election to Sen. Thad Cochran, who was aided by huge donations from business.

The public’s tougher attitudes were reflected in a survey announced June 27 by Gallup, which showed that 50 percent of Republicans, 43 percent of independents and 32 percent of Democrats, want a lower immigration rate. Only 14 percent of Republicans, 23 percent of independents, and 27 percent of Democrats want immigration to be increased.

The changing attitudes have prompted Sen. Rand Paul to back an immigration reform bill drafted by his likely 2016 rival, Sen. Ted Cruz. That bill would sharply reduce President Barack Obama’s legal ability to further relax enforcement of immigration law.

Those changing public attitudes — and the Cantor primary shock — help explain why the House GOP leadership has blocked the Senate’s June 2013 immigration rewrite, despite massive pressure from GOP donors and business groups.

The bill would have doubled the number of arriving immigrants and guest workers during the next 10 years to roughly four million per year. That increase would have ensured that the annual arrival of foreign workers matched the number of Americans who turn 18 each year.

In 2013, Bush supported passage of the Senate’s bill. “I’m actually very pleased with the ‘Gang of Eight,'” he told attendees at an June 2013 event hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Follow Neil on Twitter