Jeb Bush, the former Republican governor of Florida, ruffled some conservative feathers on Sunday after telling Fox News that he believes immigrants who illegally enter the United States to seek work and support their families are performing “an act of love.”
The statement, made during an on-stage interview with Fox News host Shannon Bream at an event celebrating the 25th anniversary of the presidency of George H.W. Bush, held at his Presidential Library, comes as speculation mounts about the younger Bush’s 2016 presidential prospects.
Many moderate Republicans are encouraging the former governor to follow in the footsteps of his father and brother, George W. Bush, by running for office. However, conservative Republicans — mostly Tea Partiers — say that his views on immigration and education, among other issues, are too closely aligned with Democrats.
The comments Bush made on Sunday will likely amplify that intra-party division.
"The way I look at this is someone who comes to our country because they couldn't come legally, they come to our country because their family's dad who loves their children was worried that their children didn't have food on the table, and they wanted to make sure their family was intact, and they crossed the border because they had no other means to work to be able to provide for their family — yes, they broke the law, but it's not a felony, it's kind of — it's an act of love,” Bush said.
Bush added that such offenders should not be treated as harshly as criminals. “I think we need to get beyond the harsh political rhetoric to a better place,” he said.
His comments may distance him from other potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates — including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who helped pass comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate before backing away from the issue last year over conservative backlash.
Bush’s words have already drawn criticism online. Many conservatives took to Twitter on Sunday to protest his seemingly lenient views, accusing him of being a RINO, which means Republican in Name Only.
But it’s unclear how the comments will affect Bush's prospects for 2016. Republicans have been struggling to strike a balance between competing needs — pleasing their base of conservatives and Tea Partiers, while attracting more moderates — including immigrants, who are increasingly holding greater political sway in U.S. politics.
Bush wouldn’t confirm or deny that he planned to run for president in 2016, saying on Sunday that he’d make a decision by the end of 2014.
He said the main factor in his decision will be whether he can run a campaign with an optimistic, hopeful message, and not get drawn into the political “mud fight.”