IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Bush or Trump? The Latest Round in the GOP War Over Immigration

Jeb Bush and Donald Trump are illustrating two very different approaches to immigration and the growing number of Latinos in America.

Jeb Bush and Donald Trump are illustrating two very different approaches to immigration and the growing number of Latinos in America, and the other 14 Republicans in the race now must determine whether they will lean closer to the views of Trump, who is rising in polls of Republican primary voters, or Bush, whose positions are more palatable for a general election.

Polls suggest the majority of Republican voters nationally support the Bush approach, creating some kind of pathway to citizenship or legalization for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. But those surveys may not represent the beliefs of the activist core of the party. It is no accident in 2013 that House Republicans refused to take up a Senate-passed, bipartisan bill that would have created a pathway to citizenship, or that Florida. Sen. Marco Rubio, who helped write that legislation, has at times downplayed his role in it.

GOP activists hated that bill and convinced House GOP leaders not to consider it.

Immigration is one of the deepest fissures in the Republican Party, and it is long-standing. A bloc of congressional Republicans broke with President George W. Bush in 2007 when he unsuccessfully tried to create a path way to citizenship, and Mitt Romney won the 2012 GOP nomination in part by bashing then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry for signing a law that granted in-state tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants. Immigration is the clearest issue where the business-minded, urban Republicans split with the party's more rural base.

In his 2016 campaign, Bush is taking the most liberal position on immigration of any recent, viable Republican presidential candidate. He said months ago that he not only favored a path to legalization but that he would not waver from that position during the primary, no matter the politics. And in constantly speaking Spanish on the campaign trail and highlighting his biracial children and marriage to a Mexican-American woman, Bush is making an unabashedly cultural appeal to the Hispanic community.

In a recent interview with ABC News, Bush said that he and his wife Columba "speak Spanish more than English" at home. He spoke Spanish in that interview, as he did at times in an appearance on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" and in his formal announcement speech in Miami last month.

"I was extremely happy looking at the [Miami] announcement event. Looking at the crowd, at least half of the audience was people of color, so I think that's great," said Glenn McCall, a South Carolina Republican in a recent interview.

"Him [Jeb Bush] speaking Spanish, that is such an asset," says Hector Barreto,who helped lead Latino outreach for Romney in 2012.

Trump is taking the exact opposite approach. He is casting himself in effect as the voice of those worried about immigration and the rising Hispanic population in the country. His proposal for a huge wall between Mexico and the U.S is unrealistic. And his suggestion that Mexico is intentionally sending its worst citizens to the U.S. has no basis in fact.

But when Trump speaks on Thursday in Laredo, Texas at the U.S.-Mexican border, he is likely to highlight crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, an issue that has galvanized conservatives after a recent killing in San Francisco allegedly by a man who had been deported previously five times.

Bush speaks of immigrants in general and Latinos in specific as a source of new energy and vitality for America. Trump often argues they are a danger.

"When we hear foreign languages in the streets of America, that is a validation of the Republican vision to create a place where people want to come and make their lives," he wrote in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post in 2012 titled "How Republicans Can Win Hispanics Back."

Bush blasted Trump in a recent interview with the conservative Daily Caller, saying "His views are not reflective of the immigrant experience. He's just wrong."

Neither man is likely to change his position.And most of the Republican candidates are already distancing themselves from Trump's rhetoric.

"He scapegoats Hispanics to appeal to our worst instincts, Perry said in a Wednesday speech.

But the key questions for the upcoming presidential debates and forums will be what stances on issues the other candidates take.

A number of key immigration questions could emerge. Would the candidates pledge to reverse President Obama’s immigration order from 2012, which shielded the children of undocumented immigrants from deportation? (Bush has suggested he would not do that, at least not immediately in his presidency) Do they agree with granting in-state tuition to some undocumented immigrants, as Bush favored in Florida? Should these immigrants be described as “undocumented,” as most of the news media uses, “or illegal,” as many conservatives argue is the more accurate term?

Do the candidates agree more with Trump’s suggestion that Mexico is sending “rapists” to America or Bush’s contention that people who come to the U.S. illegally are committing an “act of love?” Should there be a path to legalization or citizenship for people who are here illegally, as Bush favors?

A question that will likely not be asked publicly but looms over Bush’s candidacy is how eager conservative Americans are for a White House in which Spanish will be spoken constantly.

At first glance, it might seem obvious candidates should adopt the Bush approach. But a recent Pew Research Center poll showed that 63 percent of Republicans felt immigrants were a “burden” to the U.S., taking jobs, housing and health care. Just 27 percent said they “strengthen the country,” which Bush has argued. (The numbers were basically reversed for Democrats, with 62 percent arguing immigrants strengthen the country, compared to 32 percent who consider them a burden.)

On many of the above questions, the more anti-immigrant answer may be closer to the views of Republican Party primary voters. Deporting undocumented immigrants in large numbers is unpopular among Republicans, but so are giving them benefits like reduced-cost tuition.

Republican candidates are trying to find the middle ground between Trumpism and Bushism. But such an approach creates its own challenges. Do more moderate Republicans simply embrace Bush if Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker don’t forcefully condemn Trump’s remarks? Alternatively, will Walker lose more conservative voters to Trump or a more anti-immigrant candidate?