What Pete Wilson did for California, Jeb Bush would apparently like to do for the rest of the country.
Wilson was the California Republican governor whose advocacy two decades ago of limits on state services for illegal immigrants so alienated the state's growing Hispanic population it helped turn California solidly blue. In his provocative new book about immigration, former Florida Gov. Bush advocates something potentially more sweeping for the country as a whole.
Since proposing his immigration plan, Bush has come under fire for the fact that, unlike some Republicans in Congress and President Barack Obama, he would limit the end goal to legal status for the 11 million who entered the United States illegally, rather than citizenship. Just last year, Bush too favored a path leading to citizenship, raising concerns he has tempered his stance to appeal to GOP conservatives at a time he is openly expressing interest in seeking the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
But that may not be the former Florida governor's biggest potential problem. Bush would also give states more flexibility to curb services both for illegal immigrants and for those who came legally and have not yet attained permanent legal residency or citizenship.
Noting that federal law requires emergency hospital rooms to give medical care to everybody, Bush said in an interview with USA Today's Susan Page (to whom I'm married), "I'm not prepared to say we should change that law. I think we ought to have a conversation about that."
But in "Immigration Wars," the book he co-authored with Clint Bolick, Bush says that, while the "current federal law" requires emergency medical services must be made available to everyone, "states should be allowed to define which services are covered, so that emergency rooms are no longer used to obtain nonemergency care at great expense."
By extending any such curbs to legal immigrants who have not yet attained legal residency or citizenship, this would go beyond the infamous Proposition 187, the plan backed by Wilson in 1994 to deny state health and education services to illegal immigrants in California. Although it passed, that vote has rebounded strongly against the California GOP, which has won just two major state-wide elections since then, both by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Meanwhile, Bush has spent most of the time since unveiling his book trying to explain why he no longer favors a path to citizenship.
Last year, Bush told Charlie Rose, "You have to deal with this issue," adding that "And so, either a path to citizenship - which I would support and that does put me probably out of the mainstream of most conservatives - or a path to legalization, a path to residency of some kind."
But in the book, he limits his support to "a path to permanent legal status for those who entered our country illegally as adults." He says permanent residency "should not lead to citizenship" because that would "signal once again that people who circumvent the system can still obtain the full benefits of American citizenship."
Tuesday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Bush further muddied his position, saying he would have no problem with "a path to citizenship where there isn't an incentive for people to come illegally."
At a time when Republicans hope to improve their standing with Hispanics, the fact that so respected a figure as Bush would deny illegal immigrants the opportunity for citizenship and subject legal immigrants to potential new curbs could undercut efforts to overcome the trend that saw 71 percent of Hispanics back Obama last year.
Ironically, Bush himself noted on NBC's "Today" show that immigration is what he called "a gateway issue" for Hispanics.
"If you send a tone that you don't want people to be part of your team, they don't join," he said. Unfortunately, Jeb Bush appears to have sent Hispanics that message.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.