WASHINGTON -- Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) said Monday he opposes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already living in the United States, even though he has long explicitly supported such a policy.
"Our proposal is a proposal that looks forward, and if we want to create an immigration policy that's going to work, we can't continue to make illegal immigration an easier path than legal immigration," he said on NBC's the "Today Show."
Instead, he said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to become legal residents, should they meet certain requirements. It's a position to the right of some Republicans, such as those in the Senate "gang of eight" working on an immigration bill, but close to the stance of other members of the GOP. A majority of voters support a pathway to citizenship, according to a number of polls.
"I think there has to be some difference between people who come here legally and illegally," Bush said. "It's just a matter of common sense and a matter of the rule of law. If we're not going to apply the law fairly and consistently, then we're going to have another wave of illegal immigrants coming into the country."
Although he did not say he would ban undocumented immigrants becoming citizens, Bush's stance is somewhat surprising, given his numerous public statements in support of a pathway to citizenship. He has been a leader on immigration, pressing his party to embrace reform and tone down its rhetoric in dealing with the issue to avoid alienating Latino voters.
"You have to deal with this issue," he told Charlie Rose of CBS in June 2012. "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 residency of some kind."
Even as recently as January 2013, he seemed to be voicing support for a pathway to citizenship, although when read more narrowly was referring only to immigrant workers in the future. A spokesperson for Bush did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the discrepancy.
"A practicable system of work-based immigration for both high-skilled and low-skilled immigrants -- a system that will include a path to citizenship -- will help us meet workforce needs, prevent exportation of jobs to foreign countries and protect against the exploitation of workers," he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed with Clint Bolick, his co-author on the upcoming book "Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution."
Supporters of a pathway to citizenship also argue undocumented immigrants should "go to the back of the line," meaning they would be behind those trying to immigrate legally. But they also argue there should be some type of special road to become citizens for those that don't have any current option.
Bush and Bolick made a similar point in their op-ed about the "line" for legal immigration.
"There is no 'line,'" they wrote. "Critics of comprehensive reform often argue that illegal immigrants should return to their native countries and wait in line like everyone else who wants to come to America. But unless they have relatives in the U.S. or can fit within the limited number of work-based visas, no line exists for such individuals."
Bush said on Monday that many undocumented immigrants do not want to become citizens anyway.
"Many people don't want to be citizens of our country," Bush said. "They want to come here, they want to work hard, they want to provide for their families. Some of them want to go home. Not necessarily all of them want to stay as citizens."
CORRECTION: 2:30 p.m. -- This post has been updated to clarify its description of Bush and Bolick's Wall Street Journal op-ed.