CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said Tuesday that multiculturalism is bad for the United States, adding that immigrants who close themselves off from American culture deny themselves access to economic rewards.
The former governor of Florida, who speaks fluent Spanish and often touts his success winning Latino votes in a party that badly needs them, addressed the issue in a packed northern Iowa diner as he met people in the crowd.
A young woman approached the candidate and asked how the federal government could help refugees better incorporate into U.S. society.
"We should not have a multicultural society," Bush said, before beginning a longer explanation of his views of what comprises culture in the U.S.
"When you create pockets of isolation — and in some places the process of assimilation has been retarded because they've slowed down — it's wrong," he added. "It limits people's aspirations."
Bush's remarks appeared to conflict with the way he has presented himself throughout the campaign and hew toward other GOP presidential hopefuls who are hoping to appeal to the party's core supporters.
But Bush said later he viewed multiculturalism as not aspiring to an American ideal. "You have to have people assimilate into society. But that doesn't mean we have a monolithic, homogeneous population. To the contrary," he told The Associated Press before headlining a legislative fundraiser in Cedar Rapids. "The power of America is a set of shared values with a very diverse population embracing it."
Led by billionaire developer Donald Trump, other GOP presidential hopefuls have aired urged newcomers to assimilate. Some have suggested it's their duty.
Recently, in South Carolina, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was interrupted by applause when he said legal status for immigrants should be determined by what they could contribute and "whether they want to live in America or whether they want to be American."
Trump has climbed to the top of national Republican preference polls in part by using stronger language. He's described illegal immigrants often as violent, predatory criminals, vowing to deport them by the millions and proposing to build a wall between the United States and Mexico.
The approach clashes with the Republican Party's effort to attract support from the increasingly influential Hispanic community, which the GOP has named as critical to the party's successes. The national GOP is hosting events across the country to mark Hispanic Heritage Month.
Compared to most of his Republican rivals, Bush's personal story gives his credibility with Latinos. His wife, Columba, is a Mexican native. Bush sometimes campaigns in Spanish and is fond of relating details that highlight the influence of Hispanic culture at home.
"We eat Mexican food in the home. My children are Hispanic in many aspects. We don't talk about it, but the Hispanic influence is an important part of my life," Bush said in a July interview with Telemundo.
Bush even took a shot at Trump on the issue, mocking the front-runner's credibility.
"Mr. Trump says that I can't speak Spanish," Bush, speaking Spanish, told supporters recently in Miami. "Pobrecito" (poor guy).
Yet Bush has used the term "anchor babies" to describe infants whose parents come to the United States specifically so the children are born in the United States and granted automatic citizenship. The term is considered offensive in the Hispanic community. Bush later said he was referring mostly to the so-called birth tourism industry that flies wealthy Asian women to the U.S. to give birth — a real phenomenon that has drawn concern from the Obama administration.
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Washington contributed to this report.
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This story has been corrected by deleting erroneous definition of a multicultural society.