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Maribel Hastings: Jeb Bush's NO to citizenship: What happened?

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Editor’s note: This column by Maribel Hastings was originally published in Spanish at La Opinion and Huffington Post Voces. The Spanish language version can be viewed here.

WASHINGTON, DC – In an interview on NBC’s Today Show Monday, former Florida governor Jeb Bush said it’s premature to declare whether he’ll aspire to the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 or not. But apparently it isn’t premature for Bush to begin making mistakes in his handling of immigration — a complex issue for a Republican Party that desperately needs the Latino vote in order to recover their political viability on a federal level.

Bush’s book (which came out Tuesday) is titled Immigration Wars  — which is ironic, as he unleashed a war of reactions Monday when he declared that a path to citizenship, something he himself has defended in the past, doesn’t have to be a part of the immigration reform bill that Congress is getting ready to debate soon.

Moreover, Bush’s book makes the same argument. This is a radical move away from his previous stance defending a path to citizenship.

In an excerpt of the book quoted in the Huffington Post, Bush and his coauthor, attorney Clint Bolick, write that “It is absolutely vital to the integrity of our immigration system that actions have consequences — in this case, that those who violated the law can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship.”

Just last year, during the 2012 presidential campaign in which Republican nominee Mitt Romney was able to achieve a shameful 27% of the Latino vote after promoting self-deportation as his immigration platform, Bush expressed his support of immigration reform with a path to citizenship.

Now, at a time when Republican figures like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who had abandoned immigration reform, have come back to the table and advocate for a path to citizenship — and when even Republican Senator from Florida Marco Rubio has defended some kind of path to citizenship (even if his path would take decades, not years) — Bush is now positioning himself to the right of these figures, and to the right of his own brother, former President George W. Bush, who pushed, unsuccessfully, for comprehensive immigration reform.

Bush’s statements in support of legal permanent residency without a path to citizenship place him in the same column as several Republican figures from the House of Representatives. The legalization without citizenship these Republicans favor is really a second-class status, given to workers who provide cheap labor but can never aspire to the rights (including voting) that citizenship confers.

It seems Bush doesn’t think it’s premature to begin moving to the right to appeal to the same ultraconservative base Romney “successfully” appealed to in 2012. He also doesn’t think it’s premature to appeal to a tired strategy that has sent the Republican Party over a demographic cliff and has stopped them from broadening their base to be politically viable in a general election.

Numerous polls agree: Latino voters, and voters across the board — including Republicans — favor immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. A new poll from the Republican polling firm John McLaughlin and Associates found that 66% of Republicans support immigration reform with a path to citizenship.

Governor Bush understands this. Over the years Governor Bush reiterated that his Republican Party has to change their strategy in order to recover the Latino vote that they have alienated for the past decade. That’s why it is surprising that it’s Governor Bush who is now talking about not giving a path to citizenship to the undocumented, a stance that limits the capacity of his party in appealing to the Latino vote — which they can effectively fight for with the right immigration proposals — and that forecloses the possibility of these undocumented immigrants turning into voters several years from now that they could compete for.

If Bush is executing some kind of strategy for Rubio — another potential candidate for the Republican nomination in 2016 — to appear more moderate for some reason that is yet unknown to us, or if this is a momentary lapse, it would be advisable for him to clarify quickly. His recent “clarifications” have been even more confusing than his original statement Monday.

Otherwise, a move to the right by a man who represents one of the Republican Party’s last hopes for attracting Latino voters brings painful déjà vu of the despicable and hopeless Republican electoral strategy of 2012 that threatens to make the party irrelevant in general elections and in their efforts to regain the White House.