HOUSTON — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared Wednesday that 11 million immigrants in the country illegally should have an opportunity to stay, wading yet again into his party's contentious immigrant debate.
In tone and substance, Bush stands out among the many Republicans lining up for the GOP's next presidential primary, where conservatives who oppose an immigration overhaul often hold outsized influence. As he moves toward a presidential campaign, the brother and son of former presidents has not backed away from his defense of immigrants in the country illegally and a policy that would allow them to attain legal status under certain conditions.
"We're a nation of immigrants," Bush said at the National Christian Hispanic Leadership Conference that brought several hundred Hispanic evangelical leaders to Houston this week. "This is not the time to abandon something that makes us special and unique."
A successful immigration overhaul is more than simply strengthening the border, Bush said, referring to "11 million people that should come out from the shadows and receive earned legal status." He said such immigrants should be required to pay taxes, work and not receive government benefits.
Republicans have struggled to win over the nation's surging Hispanic population in recent years.
Not since the 2004 re-election campaign of President George W. Bush, Jeb's older brother, has a Republican presidential candidate earned as much as 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Mitt Romney earned a dismal 27 percent in losing what was widely considered a winnable 2012 contest.
Bush's mother and father, former President George. H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush, were on hand for the speech.
It was Jeb Bush's second Hispanic outreach event this week. He spent Tuesday campaigning in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory that will hold a presidential primary contest, yet is not included in the Electoral College that decides the general election.
At both stops, Bush moved seamlessly from English to Spanish in remarks that highlighted his deep personal connections to Hispanic culture.
He opened his Houston speech in Spanish, referring to the crowd of Hispanic Christians as "the hope of this country." And as he often does in public appearances, Bush recounted the story of meeting his Mexican-born wife, Columba, while studying in Mexico.
It was Columba's influence, he said, that pushed him to obtain a degree in Latin American studies and later spend roughly two years living in Venezuela early in his business career. Bush converted to Catholicism after moving to Miami.
The Democratic allied group, EMILY's List, issued a statement shortly before Bush's appearance charging that his platform "hinders the ability for Latinas to make personal health choices and their economic security." Bush, his advisers said, say he supports efforts to strip federal financing from Planned Parenthood because of its connection to abortion services.
To be sure, Bush is not completely in step with activists who want accommodations made for people illegally in the U.S. Like other Republican presidential prospects, he has said he would overturn President Barack Obama's executive order shielding millions of immigrants from deportation.
Yet Bush was received warmly by the Hispanic crowd in Houston. He was introduced as someone who understands Hispanic culture and literally speaks its language. Of the large field of likely Republican White House prospects, only Florida Sen. Marco Rubio also speaks fluent Spanish.
Bush said the nation's economy depends on a restructured immigration system. "This country does not do well when people lurk in the shadows," Bush said. "This country does spectacularly well when everybody can pursue their God-given abilities."
Organizers say Rubio was invited to address the conference, but declined because of a scheduling conflict. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was scheduled to appear Wednesday night.