WASHINGTON, Dec. 29, 2014 –As governor of Florida, Jeb Bush was sometimes forced to defend comments or positions that critics felt were too soft on illegal immigration, according to his newly released email correspondence.
The release of the correspondence, now posted online by the American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal research and advocacy group, comes as Bush is gearing up for a possible campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
Bush and his staff typically referred constituents’ questions about immigration regulations to the state’s U.S. senators or to federal officials.
But occasionally he chose -- or was forced -- to take positions on immigration policy. The immigration issue was taking a higher profile nationally in 2006 during Bush’s last year in office as Congress debated comprehensive immigration legislation, including new farmworker provisions.
In a April 4, 2006, letter to a high school student, a Bush aide declined to say what Bush’s position was on a bill then under consideration in the U.S. Senate. “Generally, Governor Bush does not take a position on a specific issue until the issue has been carefully evaluated to determine potential impact to Floridians,” the student was told.
But the very next day, the Los Angeles Times published a story about an email exchange between the newspaper and the governor in which he criticized members of his own party for their anti-immigration sentiments and called for a broad guest-worker program that would benefit farms and corporations. The bilingual governor told the Times that the tone of the GOP comments had offended his Mexican-born wife Columba.
The Times report triggered a flurry of messages to the governor’s office, according to his staff, and on April 6, Bush and his aides debated by email how to respond. An early draft response briefly thanked the emailers for writing to the governor.
But later that day, a staffer suggested a broader response that showed Bush trying to find a middle-ground on the issue, giving a nod to border security concerns while at the same time showing sympathy to immigrants.
The response headed, “Dear Friend,” said in part, “More secure borders will help us protect safe, legal and open immigration. The focus should be on protecting our borders rather than creating provisions that are punitive to many who have made a great contribution to our country."
It’s not clear whether that response actually was sent to people who wrote into the governor. But another draft, dated April 10, 2006, contains similar wording, including the warning about creating “punitive” provisions.
The draft responses are in line with the more compassionate tone Bush has taken on the issue than many fellow Republicans. Bush also has repeatedly called on Congress to pass a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system.
Two years earlier in 2004, Bush found himself defending an unsuccessful bill in the state legislature that would have allowed illegal immigrants to get a Florida driver’s license.
An internal email apparently intended as a suggested response portrayed the bill as a public safety issue. “Allowing undocumented foreign nationals to obtain a driver’s license will result in better insurance coverage and more financial responsibility in Florida,” says the July 2004 email.
The email also noted that immigrants, including “undocumented foreign nationals, pay taxes and significantly contribute to Florida’s economy.”
Bush occasionally received emails about personal immigration questions – these were typically referred to the Florida’s U.S. senators.
In September 2006, an emailer complained that a construction business in Oviedo, Floriga, was hiring illegal immigrants. The writer got a one-sentence response referring her to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
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