US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

On Sunday, Jeb Bush made the moral case for breaking the law. Speaking about undocumented migrants, Bush defended the men and women who crossed the border without authorization “because they had no other means to work to be able to provide for their family.”

“Yes,” he granted, “they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love.”

It’s the kind of statement that makes fellow Republicans recoil. The blend of leniency and compassion, with the implication that they are one and the same, recalled the real “oops” moment of Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential run. Defending his support of the Dream Act, Perry said, “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart.” The backlash was immediate, and marked the beginning of the end of the Perry campaign. He never again led in the polls after his “heartless” comment.

But Bush’s expression of compassionate conservatism has far more radical implications than Perry’s. Bush brings to the immigration debate an older belief that immigration is fundamentally about labor, not criminality. Before 1929, unlawful entry was not a crime; deportations, as historian Mai Ngai points out, were a matter of administrative, not criminal, law. Likewise the Bureau of Immigration (later renamed Immigration and Naturalization Service) was housed in the Department of Labor from its creation in 1891 until 1940, when it was moved to the Department of Justice.

Bush did more than look back to this earlier understanding of immigration, though. He also made an argument about morality and law. If, in an effort to provide for their families, these migrants fell afoul of American law, “that is a different kind of crime,” Bush held. “It’s an act of commitment to your family.” He was arguing that people working to support their families, even if they found themselves on the wrong side of the law, were fulfilling a moral imperative, and the system should be adjusted to allow them to do so without having to choose between legality and family. It’s the morality of “Les Miserables.”

Also embedded in Bush’s line of reasoning was an implicit argument about labor’s role in keeping families intact. People work to provide for themselves and their families, Bush argued, and their labor should allow them to do so. This is a logic that calls not just for immigration reform but economic reform, for a living wage. It is difficult to imagine Bush making that argument outright, but a compassionate conservatism rooted in strong families and hard work requires wages that allow workers not only to support their families but to spend time with them, something the current minimum wage does not provide.

None of which is to suggest Jeb Bush should be president. He should not be, for the same reason Hillary Clinton should not be: America is not an aristocracy and the presidency is not a family heirloom. But his comments on immigration show why he should remain a leading voice in the Republican Party. He knew his comments would irritate the party’s base – “I’m going to say this,” he warned, “and it’ll be on tape and so be it” — yet he said his piece all the same. It’s something the GOP could use far more of, and something Jeb Bush, whose brother campaigned on the idea of compassionate conservatism, is well-suited to provide.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report