After the Florida House on Friday gave final approval to a bill granting in-state tuition to the children of some immigrants in the country illegally, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush used the occasion to criticize Washington lawmakers — including members of his own party — for inaction on immigration reform.
"Florida succeeded in doing what the federal government has failed to do — take real steps to address our nation's serious immigration challenges," Bush said in a statement after the final vote.
Bush's comments were in keeping with his outspokenness on immigration as he mulls a 2016 presidential run — testing his ability to win over the conservative elements of his party who dominate the early state primary and caucus contests.
Similar legislation has faltered in the Florida Legislature for years. So Bush joined other leaders in making a push to advance the Republican-sponsored bill when it became hung up due to opposition by some Senate leaders.
The bill had strong bipartisan support — including from Gov. Rick Scott and his Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist. And it has been cited by some Republican leaders nationally as a bright spot for the GOP as they try to make inroads with Latino voters, who favored President Obama over Mitt Romney 71% to 27% in the 2012 election.
Once Scott signs the measure into law, Florida students will be able to pay in-state tuition rates regardless of their immigration status, as long as they have attended a Florida high school for three years and enroll within two years of graduation. They will now simply have to provide their high school transcript, rather than proof of a parent's residency, a requirement which had been impossible for some families in the country illegally.
In his statement, Bush said the change was "the right thing to do" and would help Florida capitalize on its talent, "making our future workforce more globally competitive than ever."
Though the U.S. Senate passed a sweeping immigration reform bill last year, the legislation has stalled in the U.S. House because of resistance from some lawmakers. The White House has kept the pressure on, and Speaker John A. Boehner recently drew heat for mocking fellow lawmakers who have complained that the politics of the immigration overhaul were "too hard."
If Bush decides to run for president in 2016, his advocacy for immigration reform and his tone on the issue could become one of his biggest hurdles with conservative Republican voters. In his book published last year, "Immigration Wars," Bush advocated for "a path to permanent legal resident status" for the millions of immigrants in this country illegally — but not citizenship. Democrats pounced, noting that the former Florida governor had in previous interviews expressed himself open to a path to citizenship.
During a March 2013 interview with CNN after the book was published, Bush suggested his position was flexible: "I have supported both — both a path to legalization or a path to citizenship — with the underlying principle being that there should be no incentive for people to come illegally at the expense of coming legally," he said. "Today, basically, the only path to come to this country, other than family reunification, is to come illegally."
Last month in Texas — in comments that would likely be front-and-center in early primary contests in 2016 — Bush urged Republicans to move beyond the "harsh rhetoric" on immigration, and noted that often those crossing the border illegally are dads "worried their children didn't have food on the table."
"Yes, they broke the law, but it's not a felony," Bush said during an event at the George H.W. Bush Library and Museum in Texas. "It's an act of love, an act of commitment to your family. I honestly think that is a different kind of crime."
Before making those remarks, Bush signaled that he was well aware of how much attention they would garner — and the fact that they could come back to haunt him: "I'm going to say this and its going to be on tape, and so be it," he quipped.