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Schism on illegals widens among GOP

| Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 8:21 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's conflicting statements on a central issue in the immigration debate are emphasizing divisions among Republicans about allowing undocumented immigrants to become citizens.

In a book released on Tuesday, Bush proposes that many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in America be offered “permanent legal resident status” rather than citizenship. That's at odds with Bush's previous position, as well as that of a bipartisan group of senators working on an immigration overhaul that would eventually allow a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally.

“This proposal caught me off guard, and it undercuts what we're trying to do,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of eight lawmakers in the bipartisan group. “I can assure you the Hispanic community has always assumed that, for the trade-offs that I am seeking, there will be a pathway to citizenship.”

Bush, a leading voice in the Republican Party on immigration and Hispanic politics, clarified in interviews Monday and yesterday that he still is open to offering undocumented immigrants such a path, provided it can be done in a way that doesn't treat them “better than those that have waited patiently to come legally and never get called to come.”

“If a compromise is done dealing with this principle, then I could support such a compromise,” Bush said in an email.

That's precisely the goal of senators working on the legislation, said Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, another member of the bipartisan group.

Bush “could support a plan that has a path, so long as it doesn't give favoritism to those who have violated the law, and that's exactly what we're working on,” Rubio said.

Rubio said he too had gone “back and forth” on the issue of allowing the undocumented to ultimately become citizens.

“I just concluded that it's not good for the country in the long term to have millions and millions of people who can never become, or are forever prohibited from becoming, citizens,” Rubio said.

Graham said legalizing undocumented immigrants without allowing them full citizenship is the wrong solution, both in terms of policy and politics, given that Democrats hold a majority in the Senate and lopsided majorities of the public support citizenship.

“I don't like the idea of having millions of people here for their entire life without being able to assimilate into America,” Graham said. Politically, he added, “We're not going to be able to pass any bill in the United States Senate without a pathway to citizenship.”

Those are views not shared by many other Republican lawmakers, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte of Virginia. Goodlatte, whose panel has jurisdiction over immigration, has said he could not support citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

This emphasizes an issue still dividing Republicans, following their party's poor showing among Hispanic voters in the 2012 elections, with some dropping their opposition to any kind of legal status for undocumented immigrants.

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