The Absurd Conversation About Jeb Bush’s Alleged Immigration ‘Flip-Flop’

I’ve been reading Immigration Wars, which was just released this morning, and I’m impressed so far. Yesterday, we discussed Bolick and Bush’s endorsement of something like permanent non-citizen resident status for unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as adults. The focus of the conversation since has been the notion that Jeb Bush has “flip-flopped,” having previously stated that he supports a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. Beth Reinhard of National Journal claims that Bush is distancing himself from the thesis advanced in the book:

In an interview Tuesday morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Bush started backpedaling from his opposition to citizenship in his book. “If you can craft that in law, where you can have a path to citizenship where there isn’t an incentive for people to come illegally, I’m for it,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with it. I don’t see you how you do it, but I’m not smart enough to figure out every aspect of a really complex law.”

The bottom line is that in Bush’s zeal to kick-start an immigration reform debate in the GOP, he apparently laid the groundwork for his own flip-flop. While he’s arguing against citizenship for illegal immigrants in his book because it would give them a leg up over those who applied legally, last year in an interview with Charlie Rose on CBS, he said, “You have to deal with this issue. 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.” [Emphasis added]

Let’s walk through this slowly:

(1) Jeb Bush is saying that if we can have a path to citizenship where there isn’t an incentive for people to come here illegally, he’d be all for it, but he doesn’t see how you can do it without something like permanent non-citizen resident status for those unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. as adults and who choose not to return to their native countries to go through the lawful immigration process. Reinhard describes this as “backpedaling.” But in fact Bush is challenging those who oppose something like permanent non-citizen resident status to explain why giving virtually all unauthorized immigrants without a criminal record a path to citizenship does not give those who did not go through formal channels a meaningful advantage over other aspiring immigrants who have tried to do so?

Consider that gaining access to the U.S. labor market is a very significant benefit in itself, as evidenced by the fact that large number of migrants go to great lengths for just that. Aspiring immigrants who failed to successfully run the gauntlet that is the U.S. immigration system have in most cases foregone significant economic benefits by not choosing to become unauthorized immigrants. As far as the U.S. political conversation is concerned, these are non-persons — they are non-persons because, ironically, they chose not to defy U.S. immigration laws. 

(2) Please pay careful attention to Bush’s remarks during his interview with Charlie Rose: “a path to citizenship … or a path to legalization, a path to residency of some kind.” Under the conventional understanding of “or,” Bush is offering two alternative paths, and in the course of completing his book with Bolick, he appears to have concluded that a “path to legalization, a path to residency of some kind” is the better path to take, presumably because it recognizes the gravity of the decision of responsible adults to become unauthorized immigrants rather than go through formal channels. 

The most fatuous claim I’ve heard since the publication of Immigration Wars is that Bush’s embrace of permanent non-citizen resident status for unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as adults and who choose to remain in the U.S. rather than return to their native countries to go through the lawful immigration process — you’ll note that I’m a stickler for being very explicit about what we’re talking about here — represents a failure of “leadership,” as demonstrating “leadership” requires agreeing with the position articulated by the Obama administration, immigration advocacy groups like America’s Voice, and the Gang of Eight. That is, offering a new, distinctive way forward that reflects the gravity of the unauthorized immigration represents a failure of “leadership” while jumping on an extremely ill-conceived comprehensive immigration reform concept, which, among other things, rests on bizarre conjectures about the future role of labor-intensive agriculture in the U.S. economy, does not. 

Most of the immigration enforcement mechanisms championed by the Gang of Eight — fines, back taxes, English-language proficiency — will be extremely difficult and expensive to enforce, which is why they will most likely be diluted over time. The process of certifying that the border is secure will inevitably become a political football. Permanent non-citizen resident status, in contrast, is relatively easy to enforce. It recognizes that unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as adults ought to bear the consequences of their actions, yet that they have remained in the U.S. because U.S. individuals and firms have been willing to hire them and because our immigration enforcement system doesn’t work very well. That is, it is a solution that recognizes that there is plenty of blame to go around and that Americans are reluctant to uproot people who have lived and worked in the U.S. for a long period of time, including mixed-status families. It is a coherent approach that is both compassionate and tough-minded, and though it doesn’t achieve the maximalist goals of immigration advocates, it merits serious consideration. And the fact that Bolick and Bush have introduced it into the debate represents real leadership on their part. 

For more on the virtues of this approach, I strongly recommend Peter Skerry’s “Splitting the Difference on Illegal Immigration,” which convinced me of its virtues.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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