Jeb Bush appears on NBC's 'Today' show Monday. (Peter Kramer/NBC NewsWire via Getty)
Jeb Bush seems to want to have it both ways.
On Tuesday, the former Republican Florida governor walked back a stance he took in his just-released book and said he's open to an immigration reform bill that includes a path to citizenship. The book, "Immigration Wars," notes that the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants should not be allowed to "obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship," since citizenship could be construed as a reward for overstaying their visas or entering the country illegally.
Bush, who supported immigration reform even when the party as a whole took a harder line on immigration in the last primary, surprised some with his Monday comments on NBC's "Today" show. He had said that most undocumented immigrants should have a chance to legalize but not to gain citizenship—unless they return to their home countries and apply from there.
That put his immigration reform stance to the right of a proposal in the Senate, backed by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and seven other senators, who believe illegal immigrants should be able to gain green cards after the border is declared "secure" by experts. (Rubio, also a Floridian, and Bush are both seen as potential presidential contenders in 2016.)
Immigrant advocates and many Democrats say a path to citizenship is nonnegotiable in any bill. They argue that a bill that legalizes immigrants without giving them the option to naturalize will create an "underclass" of people not truly integrated into the country.
But in an interview Tuesday, Bush suggested that the book did not include a path to citizenship in its recommendations in part because it was written before Republicans began to embrace such a plan. "We wrote this book last year, not this year," Bush said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
Last June, when candidates for the Republican presidential nomination were arguing about whether to build an electric border fence or to encourage all illegal immigrants to "self-deport," Bush noted that he was out of the mainstream of conservatives because he personally did support a path to citizenship and immigration reform. Since the election, when Mitt Romney attracted less than 30 percent of the key Hispanic vote, the conversation around immigration reform has changed drastically within the party.
Bush said Tuesday that as long as a path to citizenship does not attract future illegal immigration, he's fine with it. "If you can craft that in law where you could have a path to citizenship where there isn't an incentive for people to come illegally, I'm for it," Bush said. "I don't see how you do it, but I'm not smart enough to figure out every aspect of a really complex law."
Bush spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof said in an email that the governor had never changed his position: "The recommendations [in the book] include a path to legal residency for those here illegally. The book does not prohibit individuals here illegally from ever earning citizenship."