Jeb Bush May Have Changed His Mind On Immigration With 2016 Bid In Sight

When former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush got to work on his new book on immigration, he was expected to be out in front of his party urging a broader conversation with Hispanics and more open legislation. After all, he had previously supported a pathway to citizenship for immigrants here illegally. Instead, it's fellow Florida Republican Marco Rubio in the lead, and Bush who's explaining an apparent reversal on the issue of citizenship. Both are likely candidates for president in 2016.

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Republicans are struggling with the politically sensitive issue of immigration. And this week came an apparent shift in policy from one influential Republican. Jeb Bush is the popular former governor of Florida, brother and son of presidents and one of the most prominent of the possible 2016 GOP presidential candidates.

NPR's Mara Liasson explores where he and other Republicans stand.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: When former Florida Governor Jeb Bush began a recent round of interviews promoting his new book on immigration, he was expected to repeat what he's said in the past, that his party should have a more open conversation with Hispanics. Instead, he was caught up in a confusing series of statements, including an apparent reversal on the issue of whether undocumented workers in the U.S. should be able to eventually become citizens.

In an interview taped yesterday morning, he told NPR's Steve Inskeep his answer to that question was no.

JEB BUSH: If people come here illegally they have to pay a fine or do community service, make sure they don't commit any serious crimes. And over a period of time, they can have a legalized status that allows them to live a life of dignity but not necessarily a path to citizenship.

LIASSON: That is quite a change for Bush. Back in June, he said this on the "Charlie Rose Show."

BUSH: 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.

LIASSON: The political world was flummoxed. Advocates for reform felt betrayed, since Bush had long urged his party to change its tone and policy on immigration. Former Romney aides were furious. Bush was saying illegal immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens should go back to their home countries and apply - that sounded a like self-deportation, the Romney approach that Bush criticized during on the campaign.

Bush offered an entirely different interpretation this morning on NBC. He said his new book was simply overtaken by events.

BUSH: Remember, this is a proposal that we attempted to put out prior to the election to create a consensus for conservatives to actually get in the game. Because in November, prior to the election, we weren't even in the game.

LIASSON: But after Election Day, when Romney lost the Hispanic vote 3-to-1, the Republican Party turned on a dime. Republican senators, including Bush's protege Marco Rubio, came out in support of a path to citizenship. To make things even more confusing, in another interview this morning, Bush seemed to return to his previous stance.

BUSH: If 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. I don't have a problem with that.

LIASSON: This could just be the ideological gymnastics of a potential presidential candidate trying to get closer to the much more conservative base of his party. But it's also reflective of the dilemma the GOP has on immigration: Their base, the people who vote in Republican primaries, is out of sync with national opinion. In a recent Fox News poll, 72 percent of Americans said they favored an eventual path to citizenship.

John Feehery, a former House Republican leadership aide, says over time it will be difficult for his party to hold the line at legalization, in effect giving formerly illegal immigrants the responsibilities but not the rights of citizens.

JOHN FEEHERY: In my own personal opinion, it's awfully hard to give people, make them legal without giving them a path to citizenship. That's this that you can have, you know, if you serve in the military or get a college degree, we'll give you a green card but we won't give you a path to citizenship. I think that that's kind of ridiculous.

LIASSON: That was during the DREAM Act debate when Republicans tried but then gave up on making legalization, not citizenship, the goal for young people brought here illegally as children. The same thing might happen with a comprehensive immigration bill.

If the House passes anything, it will probably stop at legalization, while the Senate is expected to support a path to citizenship. Then negotiations will begin. And for Jeb Bush, the issue might be resolved one way or another long before the 2016 primaries start.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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