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Governors Haley Barbour and Jeb Bush Discuss Immigration Reform

On June 13, 2013, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) hosted a conversation [watch the video] on immigration reform between Governors Haley Barbour and Jeb Bush. As former governors and respected GOP leaders, Barbour and Bush shared their unique perspective on immigration and how reform legislation might affect the states, the nation, and the Republican Party.

The discussion began with opening remarks:

Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida and co-author of Immigration Wars, emphasized the economic benefits of improving our broken immigration system. Bush cited America’s eroding demographic pyramid and declining fertility rates as reasons to embrace immigration as a key element of a strategy for sustained economic growth.

Haley Barbour, former Governor of Mississippi and BPC Immigration Task Force Co-Chair, also highlighted immigrants’ contribution to GDP growth. He explained that immigrants strengthen the labor force, start businesses, and increase the number of students receiving graduate degrees in STEM fields. “I’m focused on this for policy,” Governor Barbour remarked, “and the right policy for our economy is to have real comprehensive immigration reform.”

Following their comments, the discussion surveyed a range of issues based on questions from moderator Kathleen Koch and members of the audience:

Political motivation behind immigration reform: When asked whether the election had created a political imperative for Republicans, both governors emphasized that immigration reform is important because it is good policy for the country. Governor Bush did acknowledge that both parties have an opportunity to gain politically from reform: Democrats must make good on their campaign promises and Republicans need to engage issues of importance to the Latino and immigrant community in order to connect with current and future voters in these communities. Thus, both parties have political incentives to forge good policy, which is ultimately positive for our nation.

Immigration Wars and path to citizenship: “People who were critical of my book hadn’t read it,” said Governor Bush. He stated that the recommendations in his book are “eerily similar” to the Senate’s bill and that he would not change the positions he outlined in the book. On a path to citizenship, Governor Bush praised the current bill for striking the right balance between respect for the rule of law and our tradition of welcoming immigrants. He argued that the thirteen-year path to citizenship, which is tied to border security objectives and includes several fees, a requirement to learn English and a ban from accessing government-sponsored benefits, is a tough path that is far from “amnesty.”

Thoughts on S. 744: Both governors praised the bipartisan congressional reform effort as an encouraging sign that our political system is working the way it should. Governor Barbour deemed the bill “a good start,” but believes that the bill will be amended on the floor and that the House’s proposal could be substantially different. He remains hopeful that Congress will come together behind a bill, remarking that inaction would be the worst possible outcome. Bush stated that while securing our border should be a top priority, creating a functioning legal immigration system is equally as important. Creating a legal system of immigration that is easier than illegal entry is key. Citing his book’s recommendations, Governor Bush endorsed narrowing and redefining family petitions to only include spouses and children. This would allow us to have a robust guest-worker program, increase H1B visas, and expand employment-based immigration on all levels. Neither Governor Barbour nor Governor Bush offered direct comments on the current amendments being debated on the Senate floor.

GOP’s critical constituency and track record on immigration reform: Koch asked the governors to respond to a recent finding that while the electorate is growing increasingly diverse, the average Republican district is getting whiter and whiter, which makes it difficult to persuade lawmakers to support immigration reform and a path to citizenship. Both governors countered by claiming that even more conservative, rural citizens recognize immigrant labor’s importance in certain economic sectors. Governor Bush noted that most polls show widespread support for broad immigration reform and advised members of Congress, particularly those with conservative constituents, to focus on changing the conversation to restoring our greatness as a nation by sustained economic growth—something that can’t be achieved without immigration reform.

Koch also addressed the 2007 failed immigration reform efforts and asked them to respond to claims that the GOP caused its demise. Governor Bush stressed that both Democrats and Republicans were to blame for the legislation’s failure to pass.

The impact of failed immigration bill on the GOP: Governor Bush asserted that immigration reform stands a better chance today than it did in the past for a few reasons: 1) he believes that legislators today see it as an issue of great economic opportunity; 2) both parties realize it is a “must do” politically; and 3) the American people are generally more supportive of reform initiatives. Barbour added that Americans are “not willing to accept 2% [economic] growth as the new normal.” Governor Bush predicted that if reform fails this time around, the public will blame the system rather than an individual party. He expressed satisfaction with the current process in the Senate thus far. Barbour was critical of the news media, saying that many are preemptively blaming the Republican Party for any potential failures.

Role of health care: Governor Bush expressed optimism that the health care cost concerns that led to Representative Labrador leaving the House “gang” will likely be addressed as the process continues.

State impacts: Governor Barbour stated that federal and state governments need to be better partners on immigration reform since states bear many of the burdens of illegal immigration. With very little federal support, states are flooded with health care, law enforcement, and education costs. Both governors recalled instances of lack of cooperation or support from the federal government. For example, ICE would remove unauthorized immigrants held in Mississippi facilities without providing state officials any information. Governor Bush also recalled how there was just one federal Border Patrol agent covering most of Florida’s east coast when he took office. Governor Bush added that current laws prohibit an effective federal-state partnership. He encouraged the expansion of training programs that equip state and local law enforcement officials with the ability to act as force multipliers and enforce federal immigration laws.

Remaining threats to reform efforts: Governor Barbour listed costs and fear of insufficient border security as potential problems for Republicans. For Democrats, he named unions and excessive border security. Governor Bush claimed that the increased politicization of policy is the main threat to reform.

Demarquin Johnson contributed to this post.

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