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Jeb Bush immigration flip could upend amnesty debate

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Byron York,Politics Digest

A new book by Jeb Bush in which the former Florida governor argues that millions of immigrants now in the United States illegally should never be eligible for American citizenship is likely to have a huge effect on the debate over immigration reform inside the Republican party.

Bush, who would be a leading contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination if he chooses to run, is generally regarded within the GOP as a liberalizing voice on the issue of immigration.  A longtime supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, Bush has in the past supported a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants currently in the country illegally.

But now, in a new book, Immigration Wars, Bush proposes a plan under which those 11 million — or at least the ones who came to the United States illegally as adults — could gain legal status but would never be eligible for American citizenship.  The only way for them to find a path to citizenship would be to leave the United States, return to their native country and wait for a chance to come to the U.S. legally.

Under Bush’s proposal, “those who entered our country illegally as adults and who have committed no additional crimes of significance” would be required to “plead guilty to having committed the crime of illegal entry.”  Upon pleading guilty, they would be sentenced to a fine or community service.  If anyone who is here illegally — even those who have not committed any “substantial crimes” — does not come forward, Bush and co-author Clint Bolick write, they would “be subject to automatic deportation, unless they choose to return voluntarily to their countries.”

Once an illegal immigrant has pleaded guilty to illegal entry and paid a fine or performed community service, Bush and Bolick write, “they will become eligible to start the process to earn permanent legal residency.”  To do that, they will have to learn English, pay taxes, and again, commit no substantial crimes.

Then comes the surprise, at least a surprise coming from Jeb Bush: “Permanent residency in this context, however, should not lead to citizenship.  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.”  Even those immigrants who had a compelling reason to come to the U.S., Bush argues, “did so knowing that they were violating the law of the land.”  Giving them a path to citizenship would be a “reward for conduct that we cannot afford to encourage.”

Bush outlines two exceptions to his “no citizenship” doctrine.  First, if an illegal immigrant is willing to return to his native country and apply to come to the U.S. “through normal immigration processes that now would be much more open than before,” he or she would ultimately be eligible for citizenship.  And second, Bush proposes that those who came here illegally under the age of 18 be eligible for permanent legal status without having to plead guilty to a crime and ultimately be eligible for citizenship if they graduate from high school or join the military — essentially the provisions of the never-passed DREAM Act.

The bottom line is that Bush’s “no citizenship” position for millions of immigrants who came here illegally as adults is a significantly harder position than Bush has embraced in the past.  “You have to deal with this issue,” Bush told interviewer Charlie Rose on June 7, 2012.  “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, which now hopefully will become — I would accept that in a heartbeat as well if that’s  the path to get us to where we need to be which is on a positive basis using immigration to create sustained growth.”

Bush’s new position is also substantially to the right of that of Sen. Marco Rubio and the so-called Gang of Eight.  Their proposal, still in outline form, would “create a tough but fair path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States..”  Under the Bush proposal, there would be no path for those who came here illegally as adults.

It is not clear how Bush’s new plan will play politically.  Opponents of the Gang of Eight proposal particularly object to its “immediate legalization” measure, which would, on its first day in effect, legalize all illegal immigrants who have not committed serious crimes.  The Bush proposal also has a legalization provision, although it would require illegal immigrants to first plead guilty to the crime of entering the United States illegally.  But the path to citizenship is thought to be an absolute essential for Democrats supporting the Gang of Eight plan.  Their ultimate hope in immigration reform is to create millions of new Democratic voters out of those who are currently in the country illegally.  That wouldn’t happen under Bush’s plan.

Beyond the details of competing plans, Bush’s new proposal could have an effect on his relationship with Rubio.  The Florida Republican senator is showing signs of getting ready for a 2016 presidential run, and Bush, in interviews for the new book, is declining to rule out running himself.  That means the two friends and political allies could be on a collision course.  Many Republican insiders have thought it impossible that both men would run in ’16, but it’s not clear what might happen.

But there’s no doubt that Bush’s new proposal has re-positioned him in the immigration debate.  “We need to treat those who have settled in our country illegally with compassion and sensitivity, yet without sacrificing the rule of law that is vital to our national fabric,” he writes in Immigration Wars.  “The wholesale amnesty granted in the 1980s promoted the first of those values while abandoning the second, with the all-too-predictable result that millions more illegal immigrants came into the country.”

Finally, here is the text of the book dealing with the path to citizenship:

We propose a path to permanent legal resident status for those who entered our country illegally as adults and who have committed no additional crimes of significance.  The first step in obtaining that status would be to plead guilty to having committed the crime of illegal entry, and to receive an appropriate punishment consisting of fines and/or community service.  Anyone who does not come forward under this process will be subject to automatic deportation, unless they choose to return voluntarily to their native countries.

Once immigrants who entered illegally as adults plead guilty and pay the applicable fines or perform community service, they will become eligible to start the process to earn permanent legal residency.  Such earned residency should entail paying taxes, learning English, and committing no substantial crimes.

Permanent residency in this context, however, should not lead to citizenship.  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.  But those who entered illegally, despite compelling reasons to do so in many instances, did no knowing that they were violating the law of the land.  A grant of citizenship is an undeserving [sic] reward for conduct that we cannot afford to encourage.  However, illegal immigrants who do wish to become citizens should have the choice of returning to their native countries and applying through normal immigration processes that now would be much more open than before.

As an overall policy, we propose that those who were brought illegally into the United States under the age of eighteen, who have resided in the United States for at least five years, and who have committed no significant crimes also should be entitled to permanent legal residency, without having to plead guilty to a crime or suffer legal consequences…Beyond that, those young people who graduate from high school or its equivalent, or who enter military service, should thereafter receive a green card….Such a plan provides certainty and stability for your people who have done nothing wrong and who fully deserve the benefits of American citizenship.

UPDATE: Within hours of his book’s release, Bush began to waver on what he had written about a path to citizenship.

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