BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO -- After reading former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s book "Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution," it’s very hard to imagine how any moderate, willing-to-compromise person could find much fault with this ode to the many benefits of earnest, hardworking, U.S.-loving immigrants.
Naysayers have already declared the tone of the book too harsh, but then again, they’re probably the same people who harrumphed in self-recognition when Bush and his co-author Clint Bolick described the far-left fringes of the debate as those who wouldn’t be satisfied until the borders were simply opened.
This book actually claims a middle ground both by celebrating the positives that immigrants bring to our economy and national fabric, and by being clear-eyed about the undeniable fact that some illegal immigrants take up precious safety-net resources and others commit crimes.
And you can’t say Bush doesn’t wholeheartedly love immigrants -- he’s married to one from Mexico. So when he harps on the fact that our immigration laws aren’t set up to meet our country’s pressing economic challenges, you have to understand that he’s not dissing immigrants or their families. He’s just telling it like it is.
The only thing Bush really disdains is the current immigration system itself, which he says is driven by a preference for broadly defined family reunification that encourages endless "chain immigration." Bush describes the system as cumbersome, complex, opaque, sometimes capricious, incoherent, self-contradictory and downright bureaucratic. Who could possibly disagree with that?
But here’s the part of the book that has sent so many into a tizzy:
"Once [adult] immigrants ... plead guilty [to having committed the crime of illegal entry] and pay the applicable fines or perform community service, they will become eligible to start the process to earn permanent legal residency. Such earned residency should entail paying taxes, learning English and committing no substantial crimes.
"Permanent residency in this context, however, should not lead to citizenship. It is absolutely vital to the integrity of our immigration system that actions have consequences -- in this case, that those who violated the laws can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship.
"To do otherwise would signal once again that people who circumvent the system can still obtain the full benefits of American citizenship. It must be a basic prerequisite for citizenship to respect the rule of law. But those who entered illegally, despite compelling reasons to do so in many instances, did so knowing that they were violating the law of the land. A grant of citizenship is an undeserving reward for conduct that we cannot afford to encourage. However, illegal immigrants who do wish to become citizens should have the choice of returning to their native countries and applying through normal immigration processes that [under this blueprint] would be much more open than before."
My problem is not Bush’s statement of core beliefs -- it sounds like a perfectly reasonable compromise to me -- or the immediate, emotional opposition to it. It’s been Bush’s response to the subsequent controversy.
Former fans rushed to remark that this was a sudden, radical change from his past statements, and they’ve noted that as recently as January, Bush and his "Immigration Wars" co-author had an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal favoring a path to citizenship in upcoming reform proposals.
Bush responded to heated criticism about a right-leaning change of heart by suggesting that the book, written long before the Republican Party had its post-2012 election immigration evolution, was out of date. He then went on Sunday talk shows to specify that he’s open to a path toward citizenship only if an immigration bill could prevent creating even more incentives for immigrants to enter the country and live here unlawfully.
That’s a tall order, and the kind of nuance that gets lost in headlines.
The net result is that while Bush used to be considered a moderate Republican and thoughtful proponent of immigration reform, many are now unsure whether he really is, as his co-author Bolick wrote, "willing to speak his mind regardless of political consequences."
It’s sadly unclear what Bush will actually stand up for and it’s hard to have much confidence that he won’t fall into the trap of bending his immigration beliefs to the dysfunction of our political system and "the political correctness of our times."
As it is, he’s already become as self-contradictory as our present immigration system.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is email@example.com.
(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group