Jeb Bush’s new book about the need for a U.S. immigration overhaul has caused waves among fellow Republicans trying to steer legislation through Congress and drawn firefrom South Florida immigrant advocates, especially on his proposal to limit which family members are allowed under residence visas.
The former Florida Republican governor, and as yet unannounced 2016 presidential contender, has said he and his co author, Attorney Clint Bolick, wrote the book, Immigrations Wars: Forging an American Solution, during last year’s political campaigns.
On the one hand, he was ahead of the curve because the immigration issue, and his party’s hardline stance against legalization of undocumented people, cost the GOP many votes among Hispanic voters last year. President Barack Obama won that bloc 71-26. Bush has always been seen as more pro-immigrant than many members of his party and the book emphasizes the history of immigration in the U.S. and the need for new blood now.
On the other hand, Bush promotes in the book a policy that would legalize most undocumented immigrants but would deny them an eventual chance to become citizens. Little did Bush know that in between the time he finished the book and it was published, some GOP leaders, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, would leapfrog him and endorse a “path to citizenship” for the undocumented.
After GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who also favors the citizenship option, accused Bush of being counterproductive in the book, Bush moved quickly to defuse any friction and closed ranks with Rubio and Graham on the citizenship issue. “We’re totally in sync on a path forward,” Bush said.
He could not be reached for comment for this story.
Bush also argues that much has already been done to make borders more secure and that insisting on absolute border security or something close to it, before legalizing the undocumented, will simply hamstring change. That stance separates him from GOP hardliners and has been welcomed by activists fighting for immigration reform.
But on a couple of major issues he proposes in the book, he isn’t in sync with some South Florida immigrant advocates.
The key issue is Bush’s insistence that fewer residence visas should be granted for “family reunification” and more for skilled workers.
“We are not bringing in skilled immigrants in sufficient numbers to meet our needs and to maximize future American prosperity,” he writes. “Unlike every other country, in America family members of existing immigrants account for a large majority of new lawful entrants into our country, crowding out most others, including immigrants who would contribute greatly to economic growth.”
Immigrant advocates don’t argue with the need for skilled workers, but Bush proposes limiting “family reunification” visas to spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. That would eliminate the right for legal immigrants to bring their parents and siblings to the U.S. Bush says the goal is to reduce the number of immigrants who will use social services and increase those who play vital roles in the economy. According to press reports, Graham and some other pro-citizenship GOP leaders share that view.
Attorney Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice, which represents immigrants throughout South Florida, praises Bush for his past support of immigration reform and she agrees the U.S should provide visas for more skilled workers. But, she says, on the family issue, especially when it comes to the eligibility of parents, he is wrong.
She speaks of the important role of elders in immigrant families, a great number of whom are Latinos, and how they contribute to helping raise children who become good citizens.
“Where are the family values?” she says, tweaking the Republican who has spoken in the past of family oriented public policies. “He talks about the cost to the economy, but how about the human cost? You’re giving immigrants something with one hand and taking something away with the other. It’s so un-American.”
Boynton Beach immigration attorney Richard Hujber says if the U.S. were to adopt that policy, it would affect many South Florida immigrant families.
“Wow!” he says on hearing Bush’s suggestion. “To change that would be pretty horrific. To me and most people, parents are immediate family.”
Hujber said the issue is particularly relevant now because so many immigrants come from countries gripped by drug and gang violence — Mexico, Guatemala and other parts of Central America.
“You also have people from Colombia and Venezuela where there is strife,” Hujber said, adding that making people legal in the U.S. but forcing them to worry about aging parents living in precarious circumstances would be punishing for many immigrants.
Hujber said the ability to petition for siblings was less pressing. “A lot of them will already have their lives set up in the native countries,” Hujber said.
West Palm Beach immigration attorney Aileen Josephs agrees that the eligibility of siblings is a question that is worthy of review. She said such a move would address the issue of “chain migration,” where the admission of one immigrant leads to many members of a family settling in the U.S.
“I’d like to see a cost analysis on the current policy,” she says.
But she thinks the issue of the eligibility of parents, in particular, will bring Bush a lot of pushback at the grassroots level.
“He’s going to have problems with the faith-based community on that,” she said. “There is a strong emphasis there on family reunification.”
Josephs says the worry about costs in social services is offset, in part, by the fact that people brought in on family reunification visas cannot use most taxpayer-funded social services benefits for five years after they arrive. Hujber says he has seen many immigrants who need expensive medical care return to their own countries where it is available to them at much lower cost.
Another position supported by Bush is greater cooperation between federal immigration authorities and local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration law. “Those programs should be available, along with adequate training, to every state or local entity that desires such an arrangement,” Bush says.
Hujber, a former prosecutor, agrees. He says he has seen cases where lack of cooperation between federal and local authorities led to criminal immigrants being arrested and released back into the population by local authorities who did not know the individual’s criminal history.
But Little says that numerous law enforcement leaders she has spoken with don’t want that link because they then lose the trust of immigrants who are victims of crimes and are afraid to report them.
Bush, in his emphasis on the need provide visas for workers, included low-skilled workers. He also spoke of the need for a guestworker program that would allow laborers who came to the U.S. for five years.
Florida’s large agriculture industry is a major user of low-skilled undocumented workers and also of annual guestworkers. Mike Carlton, spokesman for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said he thought Bush was right in expressing the need for those workers.
As for Bush’s switch on the citizenship issue, Carlton said it didn’t affect his members.
“Either position, legal permanent residence or citizenship is fine with us,” Carlton said. “Our farmers just need workers.”