Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Jeb Bush falls into GOP's immigration trap

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
March 11, 2013 -- Updated 1213 GMT (2013 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer says a big test is looming for the Republicans on immigration reform
  • He says Jeb Bush stumbled on the issue last week, shifting his views to the right
  • Anti-immigration forces have strong support in conservative districts, he says
  • Zelizer: GOP wants to attract growing Latino vote, but has to worry about its base

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush stepped right into the political thicket with his contradictory comments on immigration last week.

Bush, who has been known as one of the proponents of a more liberalized immigration policy, sent mixed signals about where he stood in offering a pathway for citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.

Critics jibed that Bush had already stumbled in his first foray of the presidential election of 2016, shifting to the right to please potential primary voters, and then moving back to the center after coming under fire.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

As Bush's situation makes clear, immigration reform will be among the toughest tests Republicans face in the coming year as they try to strengthen their image with the electorate and make sure they are not totally out of step with the major demographic trends shaping America.

Unlike almost any other issue that is being debated in Washington, whether that be the federal budget or foreign policy, what Republicans do on immigration will have huge consequences for the direction of the party.

Republicans have not always been hard-line on immigration. In fact, there is a strong tradition within the party of politicians who have been on the liberal side of this question. At the turn of the 20th century, when immigrants from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe flooded into cities like New York and Philadelphia, there were many Republicans who were strong sponsors of keeping the doors open to newcomers.

Some listened to big-business leaders who needed workers to fill the factories. Other Republicans also believed that immigration had always made this nation strong. President Theodore Roosevelt, who believed in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race, also pushed back against nativists by claiming that immigrants who could be assimilated were good for the United States and could be productive citizens.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



There were many Republicans who supported immigration reform in the mid-1960s. Congress revisited restrictions that had been put into place in the 1920s that curtailed the flow of immigration. There were a number of prominent Republicans, often inspired by the arguments of the civil rights movement, who supported reform. When Congress passed immigration reform in 1965, almost 85% of the Republicans voted yes.

As new debates arose over immigration in the 1980s, the party continued to hear from Republican voices in favor of liberalized immigration policies. President Ronald Reagan, the hero of modern conservatism, signed a bill that provided amnesty for almost 3 million illegal immigrants, while President George H.W. Bush expanded the number of work-related visas that were available.

As Reagan said, "I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally." President George W. Bush, deeply affected by his own experience with immigrants in Texas while growing up and as governor, insisted Republicans could not afford to take a hard line toward immigrant communities, many of who were often quite conservative in their politics.

During a speech in Miami in 2000, Bush said: "America has one national creed, but many accents." As president, Bush pushed for comprehensive immigration reform but was rebuffed by his own party.

Jeb Bush for president in 2016?
Bush on Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster

The hard-line elements of the GOP have gradually gained a stranglehold on the party. They are the dominant voice as they command immense influence with the organizations and activists who shape the Republican primaries, as well as with constituencies in conservative districts of House members.

Many Republicans who are contemplating a run for federal office feel they have no choice but to shift to the right to please these constituencies.

At some point in the near future, Congress will deal with immigration reform legislation. The immigration question offers the GOP an opportunity to really demonstrate to the electorate that this is a party capable of change and that the rightward drift of the party can be reversed.

There are many Republicans who are interested in moving forward on this question by providing a path to legalization, but they have been restrained by the hard-line elements of their party. Even with all the demographic red flags that emerged after the 2012 election, a large number of Republicans are holding their ground and making it hard for leaders like Jeb Bush to tap into this other tradition within the GOP.

In 1964, Democrats faced a similar choice. For decades, the party had been divided between the Southern Democratic wing that staunchly opposed civil rights and the liberal Northern wing that believed the party needed to embrace racial equality.

With Lyndon Johnson in the White House, the party came down on the side of civil rights. The decision came at a high cost, as most Southerners bolted to the GOP. But over time, that decision proved to be a defining moment for the values and image of Democrats, one that has helped win support with broader parts of the population and continues to provide a moral foundation for elected officials who join the ticket.

Republicans need to make a comparable choice with immigration. This will be a big one, a decision that will clearly place the party on one side or the other of this issue of rights.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 19, 2014 -- Updated 1710 GMT (0110 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT