Potential presidential contender Jeb Bush defended his "act of love" comments about illegal immigrants on Thursday while also saying he believes immigration laws must be enforced.
The former Florida governor came under fire from GOP conservatives this week for saying that people who had come to America illegally to provide a better life for their families "broke the law, but it's not a felony, it's an act of love."
On Thursday night, he attempted to explain his controversial remarks during a speech in Connecticut at the annual Prescott Bush Award dinner named after his grandfather, according to Politico
"This past weekend, I made some statements about immigration reform [that] generated a little more news than I anticipated," the younger brother of former President George W. Bush told the 700 guests.
"You know, I've been saying this for the last three or four years. I said the exact same thing that I've said regularly. And the simple fact is, there is no conflict between enforcing our laws, believing in the rule of law and having some sensitivity to the immigrant experience, which is part of who we are as a country."
Bush, who has been a longtime advocate of immigration reform, added, "It is not an American value to allow people to stay in the shadows." He was referring to the millions of undocumented immigrants who live and work in the country illegally while hoping one day to attain legal status.
As an example, Bush singled out a high school athlete at Miami Beach High School who's been in the United States since he was a young boy but who had recently been ordered to return to "to his native land." Bush said that the message the teen was being told was, "You're not worthy of being successful in our country."
"To be young and dynamic again we have to be young and dynamic again," Bush added, saying that Americans need to look on "immigration reform not as a problem, but as a huge opportunity."
His "act of love" statement had riled up conservatives and other GOP lawmakers who oppose any form of pathway to citizenship or "amnesty" for illegals.
"We appreciate the compassion in the statement, but the best compassion you can show a people is to uphold justice," said Tamara Scott, a Republican National Committee member and leading Christian conservative from Iowa, according to The Associated Press
Al Hoffman, a Republican megadonor who chaired George W. Bush's presidential campaigns, said, "It's going to kill the Republican Party."
Bush's comments were praised by some Republicans who are hoping to capture Hispanic votes in the November midterm elections and in 2016. In 2012, more than 70 percent of Hispanics voted for President Barack Obama over GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
"The worst thing that can happen to a political party is not for voters to decide they don't like you," Alex Castellanos, a GOP consultant and former Romney adviser, told AP. "It's for voters to decide you don't like them. And that's where the Republican Party is right now."
The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform package last year, but House Speaker John Boehner said in February there was little chance of immigration laws being passed in the House this year because of fears the Obama administration cannot be trusted to enforce the laws.
Jeb Bush, who is weighing a presidential bid for 2016, indicated in his speech on Thursday that immigration is a personal matter to him because he met his Mexican-born wife of 40 years, Columbia, while he was an exchange student in that country.
"Forty years of marriage for me is a big darn deal and I love her very much," he said.
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