Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush made it clear Thursday night in Stamford that immigration reform is needed — and coming.
Speaking at the annual Prescott Bush Awards Dinner, he said not until President Obama “leaves the stage” will the nation be able to fix its broken entitlement programs and languishing immigration reform.
While Connecticut Republicans gave Bush a hero’s welcome Thursday night, his earlier comments about illegal immigration has riled many conservative Republicans.
An early GOP establishment favorite in the 2016 presidential race, Bush has long urged his fellow Republicans to show more compassion for those who enter the country illegally.
But when he described illegal immigration in an interview as an “act of love” by people hoping to provide for their families, the backlash from his own party was swift and stinging.
In his speech Thursday night at the Hilton Stamford Hotel, Bush noted the negative response to his remarks, but said he sees no conflict between enforcing the law and “having some sensitivity to the immigrant experience.”
Bush said, he sees “immigration reform not as a problem, but as a huge opportunity.”
“This past weekend, I made some statements about immigration reform [that] generated a little more news than I anticipated,” Bush said.
“You know, I’ve been saying this for the last three or four years, I said the exact same thing that I’ve said regularly And the simple fact is, there is no conflict between enforcing our laws, believing in the rule of law and having some sensitivity to the immigrant experience, which is part of who we are as a country.”
“It is not an American value to allow people to stay in the shadows,”
Rep. Raul Labrador, of Idaho, accused Bush of “pandering.” Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas and House Speaker John Boehner said the country should enforce the “rule of law.” And conservative commentator Michelle Malkin created a new Twitter hashtag: #CancelJebBush.
Some of the party’s most powerful insiders and financiers are concerned immigration could define the coming nominating contest in the way it did in 2012. Like Bush, Texas Gov. Rich Perry was jeered when he implied that his rivals were heartless if they opposed a law that lets some children of undocumented immigrants pay in-state tuition at public colleges.
On Sunday, in an interview with Fox News before an audience at the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas, Bush said immigrants who enter the country illegally should, in fact, pay a penalty. But he added that he viewed such a violation as “a different kind of crime.”
“Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony,” he said. “It’s an act of love.”
Hispanics are a crucial voting bloc in an increasing number of swing-voting states, from Florida to Colorado to Nevada.
The Associated Press and Politico contributed to this report