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Old 03-23-2015
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Default Is Immigration A Poison Pill For Jeb Bush?

March 23, 2015 Jeb Bush has committed himself to testing a critical question that each of the GOP's past two presidential nominees would not: whether support for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship is a poison pill in the GOP primary.

In the process, Bush is forcing a debate that will gauge how much the party's current coalition is willing to change its agenda to court new voters.

Though congressional Republicans have shelved discussion of immigration reform, Bush's recent indication that he still supports a pathway to citizenship for some of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants guarantees that the GOP will confront the issue more directly in its upcoming presidential race than in 2008 or 2012. The coming skirmishes will likely determine whether the eventual GOP nominee can reconsider hard-line party positions on immigration that have alienated the growing Hispanic population that is now central to the modern Democratic coalition.

While John McCain and Mitt Romney, the eventual nominees in the 2008 and 2012 contests, earlier indicated support for citizenship to varying degrees, each man backed away from that position during his race. Bush made a very different calculation earlier this month in New Hampshire when he reasserted that he would support a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, so long as it imposed demanding conditions and was embedded in comprehensive immigration-reform legislation that included tougher security.

Since signaling his interest in the 2016 race, Bush had previously spoken in more ambiguous terms about supporting "legal status"—possibly something short of full citizenship—for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. Bush had vacillated between those two positions as well around the release of the 2013 book he co-authored on immigration reform, Immigration Wars.

But in New Hampshire, Bush explicitly declared that he would support citizenship if Congress approved it as part of a larger immigration package that required the undocumented to pay fines, learn English, and pass other hurdles. Citing the 2013 Senate legislation crafted by the bipartisan Gang of Eight that provided a pathway to citizenship, Bush insisted: "If you could get a consensus done where you could have a bill done, and it was 15 years [for citizenship] as the Senate Gang of Eight did, I would be supportive of that."

Bush has joined the other likely GOP contenders in pledging to revoke President Obama's proposed executive action that would provide legal status, but not citizenship, to about 5 million undocumented immigrants. But by indicating he would support a legislated path to citizenship, Bush decisively separated himself from potential 2016 rivals like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio—each of whom has moved away from earlier support for citizenship. (Rubio was a principal author of the 2013 bill.) Bush also made a very different calculation than either McCain or Romney.

Before his 2008 presidential bid, McCain joined with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy to drive through the Senate comprehensive immigration legislation similar to the 2013 bill that included a pathway to citizenship, along with a guest-worker program and tougher enforcement. As Massachusetts governor, Romney did not fully endorse the McCain-Kennedy legislation, but he described it as "reasonable" and rejected the charge that it represented amnesty for the undocumented.

But by the time of the 2008 GOP presidential primaries, both men had distanced themselves from the legislation. Reversing his earlier view, Romney denounced the McCain-Kennedy bill as amnesty and touted hard-line positions against undocumented immigrants.

Even McCain wavered after the Republican-controlled House refused to consider his legislation amid a conservative backlash. Through the 2008 GOP primaries, the Arizona senator moved away from the bill and said as president he would instead pursue the approach favored by conservatives: working first to further secure the border before considering any change in status for the undocumented. In a January 2008 debate, McCain reached the deepest point of his retreat when he said that he would not vote for his own legislation if it reached the floor again. "No, I would not, because we know what the situation is today," he said. "The people want the border secured first."

When Romney ran again in 2012, he moved still further right on immigration. He denounced Texas Gov. Rick Perry for backing in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants and pledged to tighten enforcement to a level that encouraged immigrants here illegally to pursue "self-deportation." Though former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, one of Romney's chief rivals, insisted that the country would not deport millions of families, no major candidate made the case for providing citizenship to those here illegally.

Though George W. Bush won the GOP nomination in 2000 while broadly supporting immigration reform, the past two races have hardened the assumption among many Republican operatives that support for legalizing the undocumented—which conservatives deride as "amnesty"—is an unsustainable position in the GOP primary.
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