Jeb Bush's book on immigration stirs controversy

In his book, Bush advocates residency for undocumented immigrants but not citizenship – a marked change from his previous, more immigrant-friendly stance.

Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick's book 'Immigration Wars' was released March 5.

It’s the book everyone in Washington is talking about. It appears to outline a change of heart for a major Republican figure. And it’s already got folks speculating about whether the author will run in the Republican presidential primary in 2016. 

It’s Jeb Bush’s “Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution,” and it’s already stirring controversy.

That’s because Bush, who wrote the book with co-author Clint Bolick, advocates residency for undocumented immigrants, but not citizenship – a sharp departure from his earlier support for a path to citizenship.

Last summer, as other Republicans were duking it out for the party nomination, generally trying to best each other with stricter and stricter immigration proposals, Bush, a former Florida governor who speaks Spanish and is married to a Mexican-born wife, was doing just the opposite. In a departure from the party line, he was advocating for citizenship.

Here’s what he told PBS’s Charlie Rose in June 2012: “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, a path to residency of some kind.”

Contrast that with his stance in the book: “A grant of citizenship is an undeserving reward for conduct that we cannot afford to encourage.”

Rather than grant illegal immigrants citizenship, Bush outlines a plan in his book which proposes that the government mandate immigrants to pay a fine, pay back taxes, perform community service, and learn English, then become eligible to apply for permanent legal residency.

He doesn’t rule out citizenship completely, but he makes it very difficult. Under the plan laid out in “Immigration Wars,” he says undocumented immigrants may earn citizenship if they return to their home countries and apply through regular channels – after a three- or 10-year ban.

The change of heart took many political watchers on both sides of the aisle by surprise. Though Bush’s office insists the former governor hasn’t changed his position, the proposal does in fact represent a significant slide on immigration, putting him to the right of prominent figures in the debate like his protégé, Fla. Sen. Marco Rubio (R).

So what’s the big deal? That change of heart on immigration reform, clearly outlined in his book, thrusts Bush back into the mainstream of his party and right in line with Republican primary voters – “where he needs to be,” NPR’s Mara Liasson said, “if he’s going to run for president in several years.”

And that’s what’s got everyone talking. Unlike the run up to the 2012 Republican presidential primaries when Bush emphatically rejected a run, this time the former governor hasn’t ruled out the idea – leading to wild speculation, of course. NBC political host Chuck Todd told viewers Bush was “seriously considering” entering the race in 2016.

Bush later said that was inaccurate and insisted it’s too soon to talk 2016.

“What I have seriously considered is not to consider it seriously for a while,” Bush told Reuters. “It’s so far away.”

What are the prospects for a Bush run in 2016?

Bush has the executive experience of governing a large and diverse state, popularity within the Republican ranks, and of course, name recognition. But oh, what a name. As both the son and brother of former presidents, that Bush name will haunt and/or help Jeb for the rest of his political career. What’s more, 2016 is light-years away, in political time. Still, anyone curious for a taste of what may come four years hence should flip through “Immigration Wars.”

That is, of course, if Bush doesn’t change his mind again.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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