Bush puts Rubio on the spot, rejects citizenship path for illegal immigrants

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) is positioning himself to the right of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on immigration, arguing in a new book that illegal immigrants shouldn’t be given a pathway to citizenship.

The harder line from Bush, a potential 2016 presidential candidate who has long been a leading GOP voice on immigration, drew fire Monday from pro-reform advocates who called it a “political blunder of huge proportions.”

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The stance puts Bush at odds with Rubio and other Republicans negotiating immigration legislation with Democrats and the White House, potentially complicating those efforts.

And it could loom large over the 2016 GOP primary, inserting a wedge into a race in which both Bush and Rubio are considered early front-runners.

In Immigration Wars, set to be released this week, Bush argues that people who are in the United States illegally should be given permanent legal status as part of a major immigration overhaul. But he argues the integrity of the country’s immigration system would be undermined if illegal immigrants are placed on the citizenship path.

“It is absolutely vital to the integrity of our immigration system that actions have consequences — in this case, that those who violated the laws can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship. To do otherwise would signal once again that people who circumvent the system can still obtain the full benefits of American citizenship. It must be a basic prerequisite for citizenship to respect the rule of law,” Bush writes in the book, co-authored by Clint Bolick. “A grant of citizenship is an undeserving reward for conduct that we cannot afford to encourage.”

Bush argues illegal immigrants should only be able to begin their path to citizenship by returning to their country of origin, saying that would be much easier in the future because of expanded legal immigration.

The former Florida governor’s position is markedly different from the view Rubio has adopted as part of his work with the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” group of senators currently drafting immigration legislation.

Rubio believes that people in the country illegally should be allowed to stay in the U.S. while applying for citizenship, provided they’ve completed the process of applying for legal status, that they pay penalties and fines for unpaid taxes and that they wait a required number of years before applying.

He reiterated his position in response to his former mentor Bush's statements.

Rubio told reporters Monday evening that he disagrees that illegal immigrants should not get a pathway to citizenship.
 
“I just personally, ultimately concluded that to permanently say that you’re going to have millions of people that can never apply for citizenship hasn’t really worked well for other countries that have tried it,” Rubio said.
 
Rubio said his principles envision a process whereby illegal immigrants who pass background checks and pay a fine can receive a non-immigrant visa, a status they would have for a long period of time before they could apply for citizenship.
 
“After that all they get is a chance to apply for a green card and they’d have to do it through the same process as everybody else,” Rubio said.

Bush defended his position Monday on NBC’s “Today Show,” saying that “we can’t continue to make illegal immigration an easier path than legal immigration.”

The fight over whether or not illegal immigrants should be given an eventual pathway to citizenship was a major reason why immigration talks fell apart in Congress six years ago.

Most conservative criticism of the bill this time around has focused on efforts to give illegal immigrants permanent status before the border is secure. The citizenship issue has been secondary.

But Bush’s words give the bill’s opponents major ammunition to attack negotiations, and could force Rubio and other Republicans to choose between risking backlash from the GOP base and scuttling negotiations with Democrats, which could hurt the GOP even more with Hispanic voters.

Looking toward 2016, it also puts Bush to the right of Rubio, and could make him more appealing to some in the party’s base.

Among Republicans, it’s considered unlikely that Bush and Rubio would run against each other — they are friends and their fundraising base overlaps significantly.

But their differences over immigration could help shape the “invisible primary” in which the two jockey for position with donors and conservative thought leaders long before anyone jumps into the race.

Rubio confidants in recent days downplayed any concern about Bush’s book, assuming the two would fundamentally agree on most principles for immigration reform.

But that’s been seriously undercut by Bush’s hard opposition to creating any pathway to citizenship.

Rubio’s office did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Bush’s position is a seeming departure from his past views.

In a January op-ed he wrote that comprehensive immigration reform must include “a system that will include a path to citizenship” — it’s unclear if he was talking about those already here illegally or future legal immigrants.

Whether or not legislation includes a pathway to citizenship is likely the difference between a bill that could pass, and one that gets little Democratic support.

Already, pro-reform advocates are sounding the alarm bells about Bush’s remarks.

America’s Voice, a leading immigrant rights group, issued a statement calling Bush a flip-flopper, warning him not to be an “obstacle” in the debate and comparing him to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, a bogeyman for reform advocates.

“If he stays with this new, ‘let them be workers but not citizens’ stance, it will be a political blunder of huge proportions,” America’s Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry said in the statement.

“By endorsing the failed concept of a permanent underclass for a mostly Latino group of workers, Bush will put a ceiling on potential Latino voter support. Let’s hope he clarifies his position in the coming hours to show that he will be a proponent of reform with citizenship in 2013 and not an obstacle.”

Pro-reform Republicans, especially those close to Bush, downplayed any chance of a rift with Rubio.

“They’re in agreement on 95 percent of the policy, that there should be a pathway to permanent residency. That’s the big issue for Republicans to address. Whether or not there’s a pathway to actual citizenship is open to debate,” said Justin Sayfie, a former Bush spokesman who remains close to the governor — and who has been friendly with Rubio for years. “It’s important not to lose the forest for the trees.”

Carlos Gutierrez, former President George W. Bush’s Commerce secretary and a significant player in the immigration debate during that administration, said he didn’t think it would a “major sticking point” in negotiations.

“I tend to think citizenship is more an issue that people have made of it more so than immigrants themselves, who I think first and foremost just want to be legal,” said Gutierrez, who is now running a super-PAC supporting pro-immigration Republicans.

“We want to see reform, and unfortunately any reform that passes by nature will be imperfect. ... Whether you have to leave the country in order to apply [for citizenship] or not, the whole idea has always been you can’t create a special pathway for them.”

But Gutierrez admitted the focus on a schism could be problematic.

“Hopefully [the book will] spark a debate and clarify. Once again people are confused,” he said. “People use this as a wedge issue and it creates confusion as to what exactly we’re talking about.”

Alexander Bolton contributed