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As an Official Presidential Candidate, Jeb Bush Needs to Answer Three Immigration Questions

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At our www.americasvoice.org/2016 site, America’s Voice offers an array of resources on the politics of immigration in the 2016 election cycle, including candidate tracking backgrounders (here is the one on Jeb Bush) as well as reports assessing both parties’ challenges and opportunities on immigration ahead of 2016 (report decoding GOP on immigration here and Democrats here).

As Jeb Bush officially joins the Republican presidential race, perhaps no candidate is more emblematic of the cross-currents Republicans face on the issue of immigration reform.  On the one hand, the party has lurched right, having blocked comprehensive immigration reform, opposing the President’s executive actions, and suing to stop them.  On the other hand, the GOP needs to make inroads with Latino, Asian-American and immigrant voters to re-take the White House.  For example, Republican pollster Whit Ayres notes that the eventual 2016 Republican nominee will need to win greater than 40% of the Latino vote – probably more than 45% – in order to win the presidency in 2016.  However, the GOP is facing an uphill climb to achieve that figure, in no small part because of the way the Party has solidified its anti-immigrant, anti-Latino reputation in Congress, in the courts and on the campaign trail.

As we have said on numerous occasions, Jeb Bush has a pretty strong record on immigration reform.  He has long extolled the benefits of immigration, he co-wrote a book that was published in 2013 that called on Republicans to back a conservative-leaning version of comprehensive immigration reform, and he was generally supportive of the bipartisan bill that passed the Senate in June of 2013.  This, along with his cultural affinity for Latinos, could enable him to make inroads with Latino voters, 75% of whom voted for Barack Obama in 2012.  Yes, in a general election he would be challenged by a strong pro-immigrant Democratic nominee.  Yes, he would be weighed down by his party’s negative brand with Latino, Asian-American and immigrant voters, as comprehensive immigration reformer John McCain was in 2008.  But the more immediate challenge facing Bush is to contend with GOP competitors who are mostly moving to the right on immigration.

Will he, as he’s suggested, risk losing the nomination fight in order to be remain viable as a general election candidate, or will he move to the right in order to remain viable in the primaries?  Despite his repeated calls for immigration reform, there are some troubling signs that Bush is already starting to slide right.  On the campaign trail he has begun to repeat the vacuous GOP talking point that we have to ‘secure the border first.’  For most other candidates, this is an excuse for inaction and a way to avoid the central question of what to do with 11 million undocumented immigrants in America.  In addition, he has stepped back from his previous embrace of eventual citizenship for undocumented immigrants who come forward to be legalized.  Finally, he has voiced strong opposition to President Obama’s executive action on immigration.

So, as he becomes a formal candidate, it’s time for Jeb Bush to get more precise about his views on immigration reform.  Here are three areas he needs to address to let voters know exactly where he stands:

  • Question 1: What Do You Mean When You Say “Secure the Border First?”

At a Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February 2015, in response to a question from Fox News host Sean Hannity asking, “why not secure the borders first,” Bush replied, “Let’s do it, let’s do it, man … Let’s control the border…there’s nothing wrong with that…there’s nothing holding back Republicans from putting forward a plan to do that.” Meanwhile, according to the Wall Street Journal, Bush said in March 2015 in New Hampshire: “I think the best plan, the most realistic plan, the grown up plan, if you will, is once you control the border and you’re confident it’s not going to be another magnet, is to say, ‘Let’s let these folks achieve earned legal status where they work, where they come out of the shadows.’”

As America’s Voice outlined in our recent report on 2016 Republicans and immigration, the “secure the border first” riff is frequently a coded way to say “comprehensive immigration reform never.” It ignores the tremendous amount of resources already devoted to the border and is at odds with the real facts on the ground regarding border security (see the recent front-page story in the Washington Post by Jerry Markon, which noted that “illegal immigration flows have fallen to their lowest level in at least two decades”).  It also leaves unanswered the questions of how to measure and who would decide what a secure border looks like.  This is why serious advocates of immigration reform view the “secure the border first” soundbite as circular: we can’t reform immigration until the border is secure, the border is not yet secure because some people still get across, therefore we can’t move forward on immigration reform until the border is secure first.  It gives opponents a policy-sounding argument to continually move the goalposts so that nothing is done for 11 million undocumented immigrants settled in our nation.

The precise questions are these: Governor Bush, do you mean that border security should be a priority in the context of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, or do you mean that we should not enact comprehensive immigration reform until we “secure the border first?” If it’s the former, please specify how you construct a realistic path to all elements of reform.  If it’s the latter, who decides, what are the metrics and how can you overcome those in your party who use border security as a moveable goalpost and an excuse for inaction?

  • Question 2: Would You Eliminate or Preserve DACA & DAPA Should Congress, Once Again, Block a Permanent Legislative Solution on Immigration?

Bush has expressed consistent opposition to President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, including opposition to both DACA and DAPA.  He has been less clear on when, as President, he would rescind these Obama initiatives.  At CPAC in February, Bush said that Congress should pass a DHS appropriations bill that defunds what Sean Hannity called the President’s “illegal and unconstitutional amnesty” (minute 8 of C-Span video).  But in May, when Megyn Kelly of Fox News asked Bush how he would undo executive action, Bush said by “passing meaningful reform of immigration and make it part of it” – suggesting it would only be revoked when legislation is in place that replaces it.

The precise question is this: Given the fact that Republicans in Congress have blocked immigration reforms in 2006, 2007, 2010, 2013 and 2014, and given the likelihood that Republicans will still control at least the House of Representatives in 2017, will you commit to keeping Obama’s executive actions in place until legislation is enacted, or will you undo them before legislation is enacted?

  • Question 3: Since You Have Stepped Back from Your Support for a Pathway to Citizenship for Undocumented Immigrants, Would You Sign Legislation That Bars Citizenship?

In an interview with Fox News in May 2015, Bush said, “A practical solution of getting to fixing the legal system is also allowing for a path to legalized status, not necessarily citizenship.” In the 2013 roll out of his book, which occurred during the Senate immigration reform debate, Bush endorsed legalization short of citizenship, only to clarify, after facing criticism, that he wouldn’t explicitly bar a path to eventual citizenship.  But since his book he argues that citizenship should not be available to those who were once in America without authorization, and this view is in line with the views of many Republicans, it is not clear whether a bill that offers a path to legal status could be accompanied by a bar on a path to citizenship.  This is a controversial position that leads immigrant advocates to argue such a bar would create a permanent underclass of millions of immigrants, in contrast to our long history of encouraging immigrants to become citizens.

The precise question is this: As President, would you sign an immigration reform bill that allows undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status, but prohibits them from ever becoming citizens?

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “On immigration reforms, is Jeb Bush more like Lindsey Graham or more like Ted Cruz?  His long support of comprehensive immigration reform suggests he’s closer to Graham.  But his recent embrace of the ‘secure the border first’ rhetoric, his strong opposition to Obama’s executive actions, and his willingness to sacrifice citizenship line up with the views of Ted Cruz.  Since he’s viewed as the GOP’s best hope with Latino and immigrant voters, these specific questions will need to be answered so that interested voters are clear where Bush stands on issues that affect millions of lives.”