Republican members of Congress are criticizing Jeb Bush’s comments on immigration, highlighting the challenge he’d face in winning over the GOP’s conservative base in a 2016 presidential primary.
The former Florida governor made headlines this weekend, when he said people coming to the U.S. illegally were doing so out of an “act of love” for their families, and they shouldn’t be treated the same as criminals committing a felony.
Bush’s comments at an event marking the 25th anniversary of his father’s presidency come as he is weighing his own bid for the White House, but they weren’t warmly received, even among Republican members who want to see the system changed.
Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), a conservative who has worked on immigration reform, suggested Bush was “pandering.”
“When you trivialize the fact that these people have broken the law, I think your message is a little bit off. I think it’s unfortunate,” Labrador said at a Tuesday event sponsored by The Heritage Foundation.
Labrador said that, while he likes Bush and has spoken to him “on numerous occasions,” he linked his remarks to those by other Republicans who have called for the party to pass an immigration overhaul, in part, to appease Hispanic voters.
“I think comments from Jeb Bush and other Republicans — what they’re doing is they’re pandering to a certain group of people,” Labrador said. “And I’ve got news for you. If we pass immigration reform tomorrow like members of the Republican conference want us to do, they’re not going to vote for the Republican Party.”
Bush, the son of former President George H.W. Bush and brother of former President George W. Bush, is a favorite of the GOP establishment and donor class. Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), for example, has all but anointed him as his preferred candidate for 2016.
Even with those blessings, he might struggle to win support from younger conservatives who oppose his positions on immigration and education, and who believe the party needs to move beyond the shadow of the 43rd president, whom they associate with overspending and foreign policy blunders.
Bush would not be the first establishment favorite to draw much more tepid reviews from House conservatives, who were not enthusiastic about the last two Republican presidential nominees, former Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
Second-term Rep. Jeff Duncan (R), who hails from the early primary state of South Carolina, questioned Bush’s views on immigration, as well as his strong support for Common Core education standards, which many conservatives oppose as a federal intrusion on local control of the schools.
“I don’t think Jeb Bush’s comments on immigration or Common Core resonate very well in South Carolina; I will say that,” Duncan said. “There’s a lot to like about Jeb Bush, but on those two issues, they won’t resonate very well in South Carolina.”
Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) painted Bush as “overly enthusiastic about giving amnesty” to illegal immigrants.
“To lead off with amnesty to solve our immigration problem is just bad, so I disagree with him on that,” Fleming said.
“Just the fact that [immigrants] love the opportunity that’s available in the United States is not enough,” he added. “It doesn’t give them the right to step ahead of U.S. citizens when it comes to education and our opportunities.”
Bush appeared to anticipate the buzz his remarks could generate, noting on Sunday that they were “on tape,” and “so be it.”
“The way I look at this is someone who comes to our country because they couldn’t come legally. They come to our country because their families — the dad who loved their children — was worried that their children didn’t have food on the table,” he said. “And they wanted to make sure their family was intact, and they crossed the border because they had no other means to work to be able to provide for their family. Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony.
“It’s an act of love,” the former governor continued. “It’s an act of commitment to your family. I honestly think that that is a different kind of crime, that there should be a price paid, but it shouldn’t rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families.”
The comments raised eyebrows, even among Bush allies and supporters of immigration reform. Boehner, appearing on Fox News on Monday, said he understood what Bush was saying but that “we’re also a nation of laws. And for those who are here without documents, they’re going to have to face the law at some point.”
McCain, an author of the Senate immigration bill that Bush has praised, told The Hill on Tuesday Bush’s point “probably could have been better phrased.”
“They came here for opportunity,” McCain said of illegal immigrants. “That’s why wave after wave of immigrants have come to this country, because they wanted a better life. I think that’s what he meant.”
A Bush spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.
Republicans who are trying to craft a path to legal status that conservatives could support have proposed a process in which illegal immigrants would appear before an immigration judge and admit to being in the country illegally before receiving a probationary legal status.
While Bush faced criticism for his comments in Congress, few lawmakers said they disqualified him as a candidate in what is likely to be a crowded 2016 field.
“As a whole, the No. 1 issue for me is how do we get the economy back on track, and I think he’s got the leadership to do that,” Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) said. “It’s not a disqualifying issue for me,” he said of Bush’s position on immigration.
Conservative Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said Bush was “certainly somebody I could support.”
“I think he would be a fine candidate, and if he becomes the nominee, I’ll work vigorously to make sure he’s the next president,” Meadows said.