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Should immigrants in the country illegally be eligible for citizenship? 'My belief is no,' Jeb Bush says


Jeb Bush gave perhaps his clearest answer Wednesday on whether immigrants in the country illegally should be offered a path to U.S. citizenship -- a question that has gotten him tangled up over the years.

"My belief is no," he told the editorial board of the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper.

In an interview live-streamed online by the paper, the 2016 Republican presidential hopeful stuck to the position he laid out in his 2013 book, Immigration Wars, which advocated "earned legal status" for the undocumented.

"What do we do with the 11 million people here? I think the answer is earned legal status" over a period of perhaps eight to 10 years, Bush told the editorial board. "That deal is, I think, the right balance to deal with this. People came here illegally -- there should be a consequence."

On occasions before and after the book's publication, Bush had endorsed making immigrants in the country illegal eligible for citizenship, including a 2013 Senate bill that would have done so. He has backed offering citizenship to so-called "Dreamers," immigrants brought into the country illegally as children. Bush reiterated Wednesday that those young people should be treated differently, but not by executive order as President Obama has done.

Democrat Hillary Clinton criticized Republican presidential candidates in general, and Bush in particular, in a CNN interview Tuesday for not campaigning on citizenship, a position advocates often consider a sort of litmus test on a candidate's immigration policy. Bush's campaign fought back by calling Clinton a flip-flopper who didn't help pass immigration reform while in the Senate.

Two other Republicans in the field, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, have supported a citizenship pathway, despite Clinton's saying the contrary. (In Iowa, Rubio referred to Clinton's comments as "silly talk.") Many conservative primary voters oppose anything they perceive as immigration "amnesty."

Bush told the Union Leader he intends to work hard for the Hispanic vote, citing his wins in the Florida governor's races in 1998 and 2002.

"I think I got 60 percent of the Latino vote," he said. "I got a majority of the Democratic Hispanic vote. How did I do that? I campaigned like this," he said, widening his arms. "I didn't campaign like this," he said, showing an angry face and pointing a finger downward.

"I campaigned sensitive to the aspirations of people. I didn't assume people wanted to get in line and get a government handout. People don't want that."

This post has been updated.