Four Senate Republicans working with four Democrats to draft an immigration overhaul bill said they were not put off by recent comments from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that appeared to oppose including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the GOP senators working on the package, said he was “a little puzzled by” Bush’s comments and noted he was slated to speak with the former governor on the matter on Wednesday.
“I frankly don’t think he is far off,” Flake said. “The statements he has made in the past and now, … he’s not far off. He is just concerned about incentives and I think the legislation we are crafting takes care of that issue so … I think it’s all right.”
Flake indicated that Bush, who may seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, reached out to him, but the Arizona lawmaker said he was happy to talk to him.
“He’s a very, very effective, articulate voice on this issue and I think we are close” in position, Flake said.
The group released a framework for legislation in January that included providing a path to citizenship. Flake said the “group of eight” is aiming to unveil its bill in late March, but that could slip into early April.
In an interview on NBC’s “Today” show Monday, where he spoke about his new book, “Immigration Wars,” Bush said he would prefer providing legal residency, rather than citizenship, because to do otherwise would reward illegal immigrants over those who sough to immigrate legally.
“If we want to create an immigration policy that’s gonna work, we can’t continue to make illegal immigration an easier path than legal immigration,” Bush said. “And so I think it’s important that there’s a natural friction between our immigrant heritage and the rule of law. This is the right place to be in that sense.”
The next day Bush seemed to take a somewhat softer stance.
“If you can craft that in law, where you can have a path to citizenship where there isn’t an incentive for people to come illegally, I’m for it. I don’t have a problem with that,” Bush told NPR on Tuesday.
The former governor’s comments echo the sentiment of some House Republicans who are exploring immigration legislation.
Some of the senators in the Senate immigration working group, including Flake, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, recently met with House Republicans working on the issue. Flake said he was pleased with the meeting.
“Myself, Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham all came away encouraged by it,” Flake said. “It’s a different atmosphere than it was a couple of years ago [during the last overhaul effort], obviously there are people with strong opinions but there is a willingness to get this done that we didn’t see before.”
Asked if he envisions the Republican-led House voting for a path to citizenship Flake said, “Yeah, I do. A majority, I am not saying what the mix will be, but yeah, I think we can get it through. This isn’t just an exercise … we want to pass a bill.”
Graham said he too believes that Bush remains open to the idea of a path to citizenship.
“I don’t see how you can do a bill in the Senate without a pathway to citizenship,” Graham said.
“The key for me is you can’t get into line and become a citizen ahead of those that are doing it correctly and you have to get right with the law before you can move forward and it’s going to be long, hard journey,” he continued. “I think [Bush] was open to a pathway to citizenship that he thought wouldn’t be a magnet. I would say legal status is just as much of a magnet as any long hard road to citizenship.”
McCain and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also said they weren’t discouraged by Bush’s comments.
“I respect and admire him greatly,” McCain said Tuesday. “As I’ve said before … the process that we are going through is that once the border is secure then we will give people a path to citizenship.”