Associated Press
The wife of a deployed U.S. soldier holds their son. She entered the U.S. legally but overstayed her visa.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s recent remarks on the motives that have brought millions of immigrants to the United States offer a thoughtful perspective on an issue that is as much about compassion and humanitarianism as it is about the rule of law.

“The way I look at this is someone who comes to our country because they couldn’t come legally, they come to our country because their families — the dad who loved their children — was worried that their children didn’t have food on the table,” the former governor said during a recent appearance in Texas. “And they wanted to make sure their family was intact, and they crossed the border because they had no other means to work to be able to provide for their family.”

Those who stridently favor a get-tough policy on immigration might dismiss the sentiment, but we find it a refreshing addition to the discourse that surrounds this divisive issue. We value a perspective that takes into account the personal and family-oriented dynamics that have prompted large numbers of people either to migrate across American borders, or, as is the case with many, to overstay valid visas as they decide their chances for success are better here than at home.

The former governor, who is a potential Republican presidential candidate, recognizes that legal standing is an important component of immigration policy, but he also understands that extenuating circumstances can and should temper the attitude toward enforcement.

“Yes, they broke the law,” Bush said. “But it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family. I honestly think that that is a different kind of crime that there should be a price paid, but it shouldn’t rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families."

The debate over immigration policy has often wandered away from the reality that those who will be affected by any assertion of new policy are real people who have built lives in the United States with the intent of bettering their families’ circumstances. The argument that “illegal is illegal” fails to recognize that in most cases the crime committed is essentially a status offense.

There are legitimate arguments about the need to better enforce border regulations and to ensure the processes governing the issuance and compliance of visas are more clear and consistent. A healthy debate over the economic impacts of immigration policy also is worthwhile. But in the context of the larger discussion, it must be recognized that the massive deportation of millions of undocumented citizens is not feasible, nor desirable.

Whatever the political ramifications of Bush’s comments, he deserves credit for articulating a perspective that recognizes the personal circumstances of many immigrants whose motives are too often relegated to an inaccurate stereotype.