Early 2016 presidential frontrunner Jeb Bush sparked fury among his own party this week after urging his fellow Republicans to show more compassion for those who enter the country illegally.
The former governor of Florida also described illegal immigration in an interview as an “act of love” by people hoping to provide for their families, provoking the swift and biting backlash from within.
From being accused of “pandering” and failing to enforce the “rule of law,” Republican politicians have lambasted the brother of former president George W. Bush.
Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin even created a new Twitter hashtag, #CancelJebBush.
In a speech on Thursday night to an annual gathering of Connecticut Republicans, 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.”
Some of the party’s most powerful insiders and financiers are concerned that immigration could define the coming nominating contest in the way it did in 2012.
Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee took a hard line and advocated “self-deportation” for those here illegally. He won just 27% of the Hispanic vote, the lowest portion for a Republican in 16 years, despite having a Mexican-born father.
Many inside the Republican Party feel it needs a nominee with a “Nixon-goes-to-China mentality”- in which the party leader takes an audacious, if not popular, step- on issues such as immigration.
For Bush, the debate is personal. His wife, Columba, was born and grew up in Mexico. The two met while Bush was an exchange student there; she is now an American citizen.
On Sunday, in an interview with Fox News, 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.
Some see a new opportunity for the Republicans to appeal to Latinos, many of whom have soured on President Barack Obama because of his administration’s record-setting number of deportations.
In contrast to the 2012 nomination fight, most of the potential 2016 presidential contenders have signalled support for immigration overhaul.