Jeb Bush had no intention to address immigration during his presidential launch Monday until protesters forced him to do so, a sign the divisive issue will shadow Republicans through the 2016 campaign.
As the former Florida governor introduced family members to a fawning crowd in Miami, protesters advocating for a path to citizenship for illegals stood up chanting, and wearing lettered yellow shirts that spelled “Legal status is not enough.”
“Just so that our friends know,” he said in a swift retort, pointing to the young group, “the next president of the United States will pass meaningful immigration reform so that that will be solved, not by executive order.”
Bush drew roars of approval from the crowd, but he also veered into an issue bound to split Republican candidates as they seek their party’s nomination.
The sputtering economic recovery, trade, health care reform, jihadist extremism, and social issues dominate political talk among the dozen Republicans and four Democrats in the race to succeed President Barack Obama.
The quandary over what to do with more than 11 million undocumented people in the country simmers, never far from the nexus of political debate.
Immigration will be “huge” in the 2016 race, predicted Senator Lindsey Graham, who launched his long-shot presidential bid this month and backs a pathway to citizenship.
“If we don’t turn around our problems with the Hispanic community, we’re not going to win,” he said Tuesday.
“The one issue that’s hurt us with Hispanics more than any other is immigration.”
Some candidates support stronger enforcement of existing law. Others like Bush, who counters party orthodoxy on immigration, favor legalization of illegal immigrants who are not criminals, learn English, hold a job and pay taxes.
Undocumented workers are ineligible for most federal programs like food stamps, unemployment benefits or federal student loans, and they are ineligible for subsidies under Obama’s health law.
Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, had argued that illegal immigrants should self-deport, a position later faulted for the poor Republican showing among Hispanic voters.
Immigration politics has roiled Washington ever since. In 2013, Republicans and Democrats crafted the most comprehensive reform bill in a generation, one that would provide a pathway to citizenship for millions, beef up border security and overhaul the worker-visa program.
The landmark bill passed the Senate but died in the House. Frustrated by congressional inaction, Obama issued controversial executive orders protecting millions from deportation, a move that angered Republicans.
Sharp policy differences among Republicans have emerged.
Two authors of the Senate’s ill-fated immigration bill, Graham and Marco Rubio, are running for president. Rubio still advocates reform, but downplays the push for citizenship.
Conservative presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz blasts Obama’s unconstitutional “amnesty” and wants the focus to be on securing the border.
Former Texas governor Rick Perry, also a 2016 hopeful, has said that while it is unrealistic to deport 11 million people, he too argues that border security is paramount.
“See how well you do with a border-security-only approach,” sniffed Graham.
“There will never ever be a bill signed without a pathway to citizenship that’s hard and earned, because you’ll never get Democratic votes for that.”
While Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton supports a citizenship path, a main challenger for the nomination, independent Senator Bernie Sanders, has revealed little about his immigration platform.
Bush has argued for “a path to permanent legal resident status.”
He has also discussed pathways to citizenship but backed off this year, and he enraged conservatives when he described illegal border crossings by families as an “act of love.”
“He has been all over the map on immigration,” said Mariana Martinez of United We Dream, which protested Bush’s launch.
Property tycoon Donald Trump, who entered the presidential race Tuesday, offered his own solution.
“I will build a great, great wall on our southern border,” he pledged, “and I will make Mexico pay for that wall.”
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