“The governor's goal is to create a path to bring individuals out of the shadows,” Emhof said in a written statement. “I would point out that current law requires legal residency to be achieved before citizenship. I would also point out not everyone who is undocumented wants to become a citizen.”
Under the principles outlined by the bipartisan group of senators, including Rubio and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, illegal immigrants could begin working toward citizenship after paying back taxes, passing a criminal background check, learning English, and holding down a job.
“I think Jeb's book could make it more difficult for Senate Republicans to sell citizenship to their caucus,” said Becky Tallent, director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former McCain staffer. “Jeb has always been considered a centrist on immigration.”
But while some immigration advocates are worried that Bush’s stance will give cover to wary Republicans and blow up any deal that includes citizenship, it reflects a stark political reality. House Republicans are unlikely to accept any proposal that helps illegal immigrants become citizens, unless they are young people in college or the military. Democratic Party leaders have insisted on a much broader pathway to citizenship, but they will be hard-pressed to reject a deal that at least bestows legal status.
“There will not be a path to citizenship bill coming out of the House,” said Al Cardenas, a Bush ally and immigration reformer who is chairman of the American Conservative Union. “There seems to be growing support on the GOP side of the House for precisely the solution that Governor Bush prescribes.”
“I think he’s being really careful because he is trying to create space for fellow Republicans to do the right thing,” said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns at the National Council of La Raza.
Proposals favored by the President Obama and the bipartisan group in the Senate would require illegal immigrants, after passing the hurdles to legal residency, to go to the back of the line for citizenship papers. Yet by rejecting a pathway to citizenship, Bush is reinforcing the perception that reformers would give special treatment to illegal immigrants. The confusion reflects the issue's complicated political calculus.
“He may be trying to walk a fine line with all of the sensitivities around this issue, and it certainly demonstrates once again how very unsettled the Republican Party is internally,” said Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. “Even for somebody like Bush who had staked out a position a while ago, it shows Republicans are still searching for where they should be on this issue.”