Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush pushed back against Donald Trump’s calls for an immigration crackdown, warning that some of the GOP’s “louder voices” are using the politics of fear to divide the country over the thorny issue and torpedo efforts to strengthen the system and, in turn, the nation’s economy.
Delivering an address at the United State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s national convention in Houston, Mr. Bush also responded to immigration protesters by declaring his support for a pathway to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.
“Here’s what I believe. I believe we need immigration reform. I’ve been clear about this. I believe that DREAM Act kids should have a path to citizenship,” Mr. Bush said. “I’ll continue to be consistently for it irrespective of what the political ramifications of that are.”
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, poked fun at Mr. Bush via Instagram, posting a video that raised the questioned of whether the Florida Republican’s remarks on the Iraq war and immigration indicate that he is still smoking marijuana - after Mr. Bush came clean in last week’s debate about smoking pot 40 years ago.
“Are we sure it was only forty years ago?” the Trump video asked.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Trump have engaged in a escalating war of words and have staked out dueling positions on various aspects of immigration.
The New York billionaire has vowed to have Mexico pay for a new border fence and to deport the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. Mr. Trump also is calling for the end of birthright citizenship and suggested that legal immigration should be curbed to protect American workers and their wages.
Mr. Bush on Monday tried to distance himself from Mr. Trump and others in the party that have taken the most ardent stances against amnesty.
He said that giving adult illegal immigrants the opportunity to receive earned legal status is a far better approach to the problem than building a more fencing or giving the green-light to mass deportations.
Under his plan, Mr. Bush said illegal immigrants could apply for legal status after a certain period of time as long as they pay taxes and pay a fine, learn English and hold a job.
“That is the dignified American way, the practical way of solving the problem of 12 million immigrants,” he said. “If we did that we could turn immigration into what it has always been - a sustained economic drivers for our country.”
Mr. Bush also stressed that his “family is bicultural” and that his wife of 42 years, Columba, who was born in Mexico, is “American by choice.”
“I am a Catholic by choice,” Mr. Bush said, alluding to his conversion 20 years ago. “Guess what? People tell me that when they are born Catholic an they meet people who have converted, they are lot fiercer in their faith.”
“I think Americans by choice are also pretty fierce about this great country and my wife is American just as many people in this room are and the notion that somehow she’s not - its laughable, it is totally laughable,” he said.
“It is so sad that people don’t have any sense of what the immigrant experience is about - the drive, the determination, the joy and love of one’s country, but also the love of the new country they come to,” he said.
Mr. Trump has previously suggested that Mr. Bush is soft on immigration because his wife was born in Mexico.
Mr. Bush has come under fire from immigration activists, including those who supported President Obama’s executive amnesties, who say that he has been hard to pin down on the issue.
Before the event, Latino and immigrant rights activists in Houston - Mi Familia Vota, SEIU-Texas, Texas Organizing Project, FIEL Houston, Inc., and the Alliance for Citizenship - blasted out a news release that said Mr. Bush has sent mixed messages about where he stands on the thorny issue of immigration.
They said they plan to wave signs that read “Who’s the Real Jeb Bush? One of Us? Or One of them?” and included contrasting pictures of him with Latino kids, and high-fiving Mr. Trump.
Despite calling for a path to earned legal status, Mr. Bush also has suggested he would be willing as president to support a pathway to citizenship for adults if a bill was placed on his desk.
Some analysts say it is unclear whether Mr. Bush would permanently bar those who receive “earned legal status” from eventually applying for citizenship or whether it would be a step in that direction.