The onslaught by email began when Florida’s Republican governor came out in support of a measure to issue driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally.
“Are you the governor of the people or the governor of the illegals?” an angry resident wrote to Jeb Bush.
Another told Bush the bill was “a load of owl poop.” A third admonished him that “our citizenry and way of life must be protected from this illegal onslaught.”
Within three weeks of its introduction, the 2004 legislation was dead, but, Bush wrote, “the situation of illegal immigrants won’t go away.”
Those words, included in more than 350,000 emails spanning Bush’s eight years as governor, will prove prescient if he decides to enter the 2016 presidential contest, one that he has been striding toward since December. On the explosive issue of immigration, Bush occupies the left side of his party’s spectrum, his views squarely contrary to those of many conservative voters who will help determine the next Republican nominee.
Time after time, the emails showed Bush lamenting his party’s positions on immigration and saying Americans “need to deal with” millions in the country without proper papers — words that signaled an embrace of some measure of legal status for them, rather than deportation.
“We need to enforce our borders and do it seriously,” the governor told a 15-year-old girl from West Palm Beach who wrote in 2006 that she’d found little sympathy among the public for those caught up in “this illegal immigrant deal.”
“We need to keep open our country to people fleeing repression,” he wrote. “We need to deal with the millions that are here illegally but aren’t leaving. It is a big task but we need to do it. It should be done without the emotion of hatred and fear.”
Fallout from California’s earlier immigration fight struck Bush as a warning sign. In 2006, as his brother, President George W. Bush, was struggling unsuccessfully to persuade House Republicans to grant legal status to millions of immigrants, Jeb Bush reminded him of the political cost of former Gov. Pete Wilson’s support of Proposition 187, which would have outlawed state benefits such as education and healthcare to immigrants in the country illegally. (The 1994 measure was approved by California voters but overturned by a federal judge.)
“I know he felt he was doing the right thing,” Bush wrote of Wilson, “but matters are worse now and the Republican Party is now the minority party in California.”
The emails, which detail Bush’s views on immigration and the need to deal with millions who either entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas, were obtained under public document requests. Beyond advocating steps in Florida to provide driver’s licenses and cheaper college tuition, he did not offer specific solutions.
Bush knew the messages were probably public under state law, and many of his responses were only a word or two in length, with a few hasty misspellings. Personal or overtly political communications were removed before the files were released.
The issue of immigration is a personal one for Bush; he is fluent in Spanish, was raised in heavily Latino Texas and has been married for four decades to a Mexican woman he met during a student exchange. As governor, he frequently directed his staff to assist immigrants, including those who had arrived illegally, as they sought help with federal agencies.
But Bush also faced a struggle familiar to Republican leaders in states with large agricultural bases: pressure from GOP-allied interests demanding stability in the labor pool. Florida growers in particular wanted protection for hundreds of thousands of workers in the country illegally who pick the state’s citrus and tomato crops.
As Bush’s interest in a presidential campaign has heightened, he has sometimes fumbled attempts to balance his views and the opposing ones held by many in his party. For years, Bush’s emails show, he supported more open immigration policies and legal acceptance of those already working in the country illegally. In 2012, he made public comments supporting a “path to citizenship” as well.
But in a book published in 2013, he endorsed only the narrower option of allowing legal status. When that move came to dominate book tour interviews, Bush shifted again, saying he favored either option.
Though emails show he supported the expansion of state police powers to arrest and detain immigrants — generally a federal responsibility — Bush also sought to increase the rights of children of immigrants in the country illegally. From 2003 to 2005, he backed bills to allow immigrants without proper papers to pay in-state tuition rates at Florida’s state universities — a position that, in the 2012 presidential primaries, proved toxic to Republican Rick Perry, who held the same view as Texas governor.
“It seems to me that valedectorians should be treated fairly if for no fault of their own, their parents came illegally to our country,” Bush wrote a friend after a blistering column attacking the plan by Republican activist Phyllis Schlafly.
After repeated defeats in the Legislature, Bush apologized to a Miami high school senior, son of parents from the Dominican Republic and a resident for six years, who worried that “without this bill passing we will be left washing dishes or without jobs altogether.”
“I have tried,” the governor wrote the student.
The emails that were released were largely silent on Bush’s brother’s effort to move GOP opinion on federal immigration policy during that period, but at times Jeb Bush was openly critical of what he saw as hostility from many Republicans.
The evening after inaugurating Marco Rubio, son of a Cuban emigre, as the designated speaker of the Florida House, the governor wrote that it signaled hope “that our party can renew itself, something that I fret about at the national level.”
A day later he told another correspondent that “many of the entrenched don’t ask any questions and sadly many are republicans.”
In 2006, toward the end of his term in office, Bush grew emphatic in a lengthy commentary to a Los Angeles Times reporter who had written a story on his brother’s immigration battles with Congress.
“The notion that we would felonize folks that have been here and that are contributing to our progress is just plain wrong. … Penalizing the children of illegal immigrants by denying US citizenship is wrong,” wrote Bush. For an uncharacteristically expansive seven paragraphs, the governor explained his support of guest worker programs and stronger border security, and opposition to “piling on provisions that are punitive to many who have made a great contribution to our country.”
The country needed “means to deal with the millions of long term undocumented workers” already living in the United States, Bush wrote. He did not offer his own plan, but was critical of the debate. “The cumulative effect of some politicians pounding their chests about immigration is hurtful,” he wrote.
“I fear they do so for current political gain at the expense of thoughtful policy over the long term.”
Friction erupted anew during his final weeks in office, when radio host Rush Limbaugh and then-U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado spoke at a conservative event in Palm Springs. Tancredo told the crowd that uncontrolled immigration had turned Miami into a “Third World country.”
Bush wrote that Tancredo was “an ignorant man on the subject of Miami,” but noted it would take more than a visit for the congressman “to understand the positive contribution of immigration on Florida.”
Bush later told a reporter Tancredo was “nuts,” and his email account blazed for weeks with angry responses from across the country. His email files show no responses to them, but he directed his economic development chief to arrange a gift: a Miami vacation, to a Colorado charity where Tancredo was to host an auction.