WASHINGTON — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Tuesday he was open to immigration reform proposals that include a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, clarifying his approach amid questions from fellow Republicans.
Bush, the author of a new book on immigration, said he could support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants as long as it didn't create an incentive for people to come to the U.S. illegally.
In "Immigration Wars," the brother and son of U.S. presidents writes that lawmakers should instead create a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants who live in the U.S., as long as they agree to plead guilty to a crime of illegal entry and pay restitution. He warns that creating a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants could encourage more illegal immigration and undermine the nation's laws.
But that approach appeared to contradict past statements in which Bush suggested he was supportive of a special path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. And it contrasted with a bipartisan group of eight senators who have laid out a series of principles for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants as long as security along the U.S.-Mexico border is strengthened.
The confusion perplexed some fellow Republicans. GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the bipartisan group, said Tuesday that Bush's proposal "caught me off guard and it undercuts what we're trying to do." He said the pathway was favored by the public and crucial to passage in the Senate. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., another member of the group, told reporters on Monday that he was "a bit perplexed" and "disappointed" to learn of Bush's approach in the book.
Bush, in an interview Tuesday with MSNBC's "Morning Joe," said if Congress could develop legislation "where you can have a path to citizenship where there isn't an incentive for people to come illegally, I'm for it. I don't have a problem with that." He said the nation needs a "forward-leaning immigration reform" that would encourage lawful immigration and attracts people with skills to grow the economy.
In an interview with CNN, Bush said he has supported both a path to legalization and a path citizenship in the past "with the underlining principle being that there should be no incentive for people to come illegally at the expense of coming legally," he said. "Today the only path to come to this country other than family re-unification is to come illegally. We need to create another category of legal immigration where there is actually a line. So if you could create that through a path to citizenship I would support that."
Bush has said he would make an exception for young illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. They could earn their citizenship if they earn a high school degree or volunteer for military service.
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.
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