HUDSON, N.H. — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Wednesday that he does not support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, raising additional questions about his evolution on the thorny issue, which has created headaches for both parties in Washington and the crowded presidential field.
The pressure is on Mr. Bush in New Hampshire, which political observers say could make or break his chance of winning the Republican nomination. He faces the challenges of distancing himself from a number of other candidates who see the state as a springboard to the nomination, and from the lingering legacy of his brother George W. Bush, who oversaw a 2007 immigration program that included path to citizenship.
During an interview Wednesday with the New Hampshire Union Leader in Manchester, Mr. Bush was asked whether he supported a pathway to full citizenship. He replied, “No.”
“What do we do with the 11 million people here? I think the answer is earned legal status,” he said.
He made the comments a day after former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, accused Mr. Bush of flip-flopping on a pathway to citizenship.
“He doesn’t believe in a path to citizenship. If he did at one time, he no longer does,” Mrs. Clinton said during a rare interview with CNN.
Independent fact-checkers said Mrs. Clinton’s charge was mostly true, although she also has evolved on the issue.
Analysts said it has been hard to pin down Mr. Bush on the issue. They cannot determine whether Mr. Bush is pushing to permanently bar those who receive “earned legal status” from eventually applying for citizenship or whether it would be a step in that direction.
“I think that his pronouncements on immigration should be met with the utmost skepticism,” said Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, which has warned about the bad effects of legal and illegal immigration. “There is a lot of gray area here.”
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which advocates for a pathway to citizenship, agreed from the other end of the issue, saying it has “been tricky to follow” Mr. Bush on the matter.
“It is a divisive issue within the party, and even Jeb Bush is speaking out of both sides of his mouth,” Mr. Sharry said.
Indeed, Mr. Bush has come under fire from grass-roots conservatives and tea partyers for his support of Common Core and his comments on immigration.
“I suspect he is going to vague on it on purpose, because he wants to say to the conservatives in the party that ‘I am against citizenship,’ and he wants Latinos to hear, ‘I am open to citizenship,’” Mr. Sharry said. “Him saying ‘earned legal status’ is deliberately vague to communicate the hard-line position to the right, but it also is not so clear, so that he can still pivot on the issue in the general election.”
The Bush camp downplayed the notion that Mr. Bush has moved on the issue, saying he wants legal status but would be willing to support a pathway to citizenship. Mr. Bush, though, restated his position during a town-hall-style meeting at a local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in response to a question from a voter.
“I honestly think we need to provide a path to legalized status, not citizenship, for illegal immigrants,” Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Bush said Wednesday that legal status would be the final step in a broader plan to fix the immigration system that would start with securing the nation’s borders. He also would strengthen the E-Verify system, stiffen penalties for businesses that hire illegal immigrants and freeze federal dollars from going to “sanctuary cities” that do not comply with immigration law.
Immigration jumped to the top of the Republican agenda after Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for President Obama in the 2012 election and Republicans concluded that Mitt Romney’s harsh rhetoric, calling for “self-deportation,” on immigration burned them at the polls.
Mr. Bush, who served as governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, said it is not “viable to make conditions so hard that people self-deport.”
He also said it would be costly and take decades to deport the people living in the U.S. illegally and instead offered what he described as the “right middle ground.”
He said illegal immigrants could earn legal status after a number of years — “it could be eight years or 10 years” — in which they work, learn to speak English, pay a fine and don’t commit a crime.
“You earn legal status, you don’t cut in front of people who have been patiently waiting to come legally into the country,” Mr. Bush said. “That deal, I think, is a fair deal, it is a realistic deal. It is a practical deal, and immigrants would take that in a heartbeat.”
Earlier this year, Mr. Bush said he would be open to legislation that included a pathway to citizenship but added that there was not enough political support for the idea. In a 2013 Wall Street Journal op-ed, he called on lawmakers to pass the immigration overhaul that Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — two of his rivals for the nomination now — helped push through the Senate.
Mr. Graham has since warned that he would not sign an immigration bill that does not include a path to citizenship. Mr. Rubio, meanwhile, has shifted his attention to securing the nation’s borders, saying that should be the first step.
Mr. Bush is leading the Republican presidential pack in national polls. He is tied for second in Iowa and running first in New Hampshire.