Jeb Bush's book: more than just a flip-flop on illegal immigration

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's changed stance on citizenship for undocumented immigrants fits into a broader repositioning on the issue of immigration – perhaps for a presidential run in 2016.

Eric Gay/AP/File
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) talks with the media following his address on education to the Texas Business Leadership Council in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 26. In a new book, Bush calls for a complete overhaul of US immigration policy but cautions against providing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants – a position that puts him at odds with some Senate reformers within his own party.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s waffling on whether most undocumented immigrants should be able to become US citizens was the quick headline from his new book, "Immigration Wars."

But the Sunshine State Republican has a slew of other ideas for the immigration debate.

For example, did you know Mr. Bush thinks all US citizens should have to pass a much tougher version of the US citizenship exam to graduate from high school?

There’s good reason the question about citizenship took top billing in discussing Bush’s book, released on Tuesday. He's been one of the most prominent Republicans advocating outreach to Latinos through a “pathway to citizenship” – an immigration code phrase broadly indicating that most of the nation’s more than 10 million unauthorized immigrants would be able to obtain US citizenship at some point – but his "Immigration Wars" argues the opposite.

Still, there’s a lot more to the book than just a flip-flop on who should become a citizen, and he takes on some of the right’s main critiques of comprehensive immigration reform.

Bush seeks to revamp the country's overall legal immigration system, shifting visas from the current system, which is largely family-based, toward employment-based migration.

In three important cases, Bush takes issue with fundamental components of his party’s opposition to prior immigration reform proposals. First, he disagrees with those who believe overall US immigration should decrease from its current level of roughly 1 million new permanent residents per year.

“Left to its own devices and without increased immigration, America’s population is shrinking,” Bush writes. “We need more immigrants to stem that debilitating demographic tide.”

Second, he rejects the idea, frequently voiced by conservatives, that they’ll only consider reforming the immigration system once America’s borders are secure.

“Many on the right say that we must secure the border before we do anything to reform our immigration system. The fact is that we can’t do one without the other,” Bush writes.

After going down a list of unsolvable riddles in immigration policy – for example, what counts as “operational control” of the border – he asks with some exasperation: “What exactly is the magic moment we must wait for before we can fix the broken immigration system?”

Third, he rebuts the idea that those wishing to come to the United States without family or employment connections can somehow “get in line” to become US citizens.

“Most Americans probably don’t realize that the traditional avenue of immigration is all but foreclosed by our current system,” Bush writes. There are 250 applications for each of the 50,000 slots in the nation’s annual “diversity visa” lottery system, he adds. This is the chief way those without family or employment ties can come to America.

“While past immigrants ‘waited their turn in line,’ there is no line in which most of those aspiring to become Americans can wait with any realistic hope of gaining admission," he writes.

In terms of new policy, Bush aims to greatly expand employment-based visas, at the expense of family-based visas. He would redirect roughly half the number of family-based green cards (currently accounting for some 60 percent of the US immigration stream) to employment purposes. The family immigration reduction would be achieved by limiting family-based immigration to immigrants' spouses and minor children, down from current policy that also includes parents and siblings, among others. 

He also would offer an unlimited number of visas to investors and entrepreneurs, while giving all employment-based immigrants the right to green cards after a set number of years.

As for regulating the flow of employment-based workers, Bush's approach is strikingly similar to the agreement struck between the US Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO in recent weeks on how to regulate the flow of low-skilled temporary workers: Let the market decide. 

Bush would base the number of work-based employment visas on skills in demand and unemployment rates in specific occupations. The plan backed by the chamber and organized labor would match immigration levels to employment needs.

Moreover, Bush proposes consolidating immigration and naturalization activities under a new immigration bureau or perhaps within an existing structure, such as the US Department of Commerce, which has a strong incentive to promote immigration. With these activities currently a part of the Department of Homeland Security, he says, security concerns have often trampled other US interests involving immigration.

Overall, the book leaves the impression that Bush would like to fit on the more conservative end of his party’s immigration spectrum rather than the leading edge, where he found himself over the past half-decade.

At the Republican National Convention last August, Bush said he supported the DREAM Act, legislation that would allow many young undocumented immigrants up to age 35 who had obtained a high school degree or served in the military to become US citizens.

“I’m not running for anything,” Bush said at the time, “so I can say whatever I want.”
In his book, however, Bush still supports a path to citizenship for the so-called DREAMers – but now, with a potential 2016 presidential campaign on the horizon, only up to age 18.

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