WASHINGTON—Accusing politicians of “pounding their chests” on immigration for short-term political gain, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Tuesday that the tone of the debate had been “hurtful” to him and his Mexican-born wife, Columba.
Bush, the younger brother of President Bush, reserved some of his sharpest criticism for conservatives in his own Republican Party, calling it “just plain wrong” to charge illegal immigrants with a felony, as a provision passed by the Republican-led House would do. He also opposed “penalizing the children of illegal immigrants” by denying them U.S. citizenship, an idea backed by some conservatives but not included in the legislation.
“My wife came here legally, but it hurts her just as it hurts me when people give the perception that all immigrants are bad,” the Florida governor wrote in an e-mail exchange with The Times.
Gov. Bush has generally avoided injecting himself into national political fights, and he rarely invokes his soft-spoken wife of 32 years in such a public way. But his comments reflect the concern among many Republicans that calls by conservatives for an immigrant crackdown risk alienating Latino voters.
His brother is attempting to navigate a growing rift among Republicans over what to do with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country. The president has proposed a guest-worker program but has not said what should happen to those already here illegally.
Florida is home to millions of residents who were born in other countries. And the Bush brothers, in Florida and Texas, where the president was governor, have been popular with Latino voters.
Both have long advocated open immigration laws, putting them at odds with many in their party.
Longtime friends and associates say the president’s relationship with his brother’s family, along with his experiences living and working in Texas, contributed to his views on immigration.
For the Florida governor, though, immigration is a personal matter. He met his wife during a high school exchange program in Mexico, and the two married when he was 21. They settled in Miami in 1980 in part because she would feel comfortable in a heavily Latin city, home to Cubans, Mexicans and thousands of other Spanish-speaking immigrants.
The governor speaks the language fluently. His son, George P. Bush, has cited his Latino heritage in campaign appearances for his father and uncle and is considered an heir to the family political dynasty.
“Columba and I watch the news early in the morning and in the evenings,” Bush wrote in the late-night e-mail exchange. “The cumulative effect of the coverage is that immigrants are bad and hurting our country. The coverage is black and white, good and bad, without the nuances that the coverage deserves.”