SAN DIEGO — For Jeb Bush, the immigration debate has left him caught between love and hate.
The former Florida governor and possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate recently said that, for those illegal immigrants who come to the United States to feed their families, the undertaking is best described as an “act of love.”
But many of his fellow Republicans hate that he said it. Some contend that Bush’s prospects for the White House have gone down the drain, while others insist that his comments are a good indicator that he’s not planning to run.
The reaction is sad but predictable. On immigration, the GOP is still stuck on stupid. No wonder Republicans in Congress won’t take up an immigration bill. Whenever that subject comes up, the GOP fluctuates between the repugnant and the ridiculous.
For a taste of both, let’s take a closer look at how Bush got in hot water with the coldhearted in his party. We finally know exactly what it takes for a Republican who talks about immigration to get voted off the island.
–Claiming that illegal immigrants bring “Third World diseases” such as “tuberculosis, malaria, polio and leprosy,” as radio talk show host and Texas lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Dan Patrick has said? Nope.
–Insisting that ranchers be allowed to shoot anyone illegally crossing the border on to their land, as The Dallas Morning News claims it was told by Senate candidate Chris Mapp during an endorsement interview a few months ago? Not even close.
–Casually using the racial slur “wetbacks,” as Rep. Don Young of Alaska did in 2013 to refer nostalgically to the illegal immigrants who, many summers ago, picked tomatoes on his father’s farm? Sorry.
Republicans tend to ignore or excuse those eruptions. In the process, they enable the knuckleheads who have damaged the party’s brand.
The truth is that what really makes Republicans uncomfortable is when someone forces them to tone down their language and think critically about a controversial issue, as Bush did.
During a recent visit to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, Jeb Bush told Fox News that the country needs to “get beyond the harsh political rhetoric” associated with the immigration debate. Then, about illegal immigrants, Bush said this: “Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family.”
He’s right. Nevertheless, with those few words, Bush did something radical. He ascribed to the illegal immigrants whom some in the GOP have spent decades dehumanizing, demonizing and denigrating a set of qualities that make them appear human. We might even call some of them admirable. In a country where so many parents are content to let other people provide for their children, either through charity or government assistance, illegal immigrants take risks and put themselves in danger to provide for their families. Imagine.
Yet Bush also left out an important piece of the puzzle. Coming into the United States without proper documents may be an act of love, but it is also an act of disrespect toward this country, its people and its laws. Those who want to reform our immigration system and provide legal status to the undocumented must accept this reality.
What was Bush thinking? Actually, unlike many of his fellow Republicans, Bush seems to think quite deeply about issues such as immigration. If you’ve ever been in the room, as I have, when he is speaking about immigrants and the contributions they make to our society, no matter how they got here, you’ll see that he understands that our country is getting the better end of the bargain. It was true 100 years ago, and it is true now.
Many in the GOP don’t agree with this assessment, even if they’re not willing to say it out loud. Either Bush is wrong about illegal immigrants, or other Republicans are. So those who disagree with him have no choice but to attack him and declare an end to his political career. That’s premature.
Stubbornness is in the DNA of the GOP. Just as there will always be Democrats who won’t admit that illegal immigrants did a bad thing, there will also always be Republicans who won’t accept that they’re not all bad people.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.