McALLEN — The immigration debate currently consuming the presidential race found its way to this border destination Monday with a sometimes contentious visit by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who panned the proposals of Donald Trump but defended his use of a term the billionaire has injected into the 2016 race.
Speaking with reporters inside a Mexican restaurant, Bush grew visibly irritated when pressed about the term "anchor babies," a controversial label for children born in the United States to parents who are in the country illegally. He clarified — in English and Spanish — that his original use of the phrase had more to do with "organized efforts taking advantage" of birthright citizenship, not necessarily by Latinos seeking to live in the United States.
"Frankly, it's more related to Asian people coming into our country," Bush said, instantly setting off another round of Democratic outrage.
Bush showed flashes of frustration as questions about the label largely overshadowed an apparent effort to use his border trip to portray his immigration ideas as more thoughtful than Trump, who has proposed ending birthright citizenship. On "anchor babies," Bush said it was "ludicrous" for political opponents, including the campaign of Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, to suggest he was using a derogatory term, nodding to the fact he is "immersed in the immigrant experience."
"I think we need to take a step back and chill out a little bit as it relates to the political correctness that somehow you have to be scolded every time you say something," Bush said at one point. Later, responding to another question about the term, Bush tersely told a reporter: "This is so ridiculous. Give me the name you want me to use and I'll use it.
Bush's roughly 45-minute appearance at Palenque Grill followed a fundraiser here that cost $1,000 to attend and a private briefing on border security with local officials. That meeting showed that "you have to have a much deeper strategy than just building a fence," Bush told reporters, dinging a central part of Trump's proposals to curb illegal immigration.
"Mr. Trump's plans are not grounded in conservative principles," Bush said. "The simple fact is his proposal is unrealistic, it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, it will violate people's civil liberties, it will create friction with our third largest trading partner, it's non-necessary, and I think he's wrong about this."
Bush's campaign had presented his trip here as an opportunity for contrast with Trump, who has made stopping illegal immigration his central appeal to GOP primary voters while ridiculing Bush and others on the issue almost daily. Bush had planned for weeks to visit the Rio Grande Valley for the fundraiser but more recently added the border security briefing and restaurant stop.
In between responding to questions about Trump, Bush plugged his Texas roots, reminding reporters he was born in Midland, grew up in Houston and spent plenty of time in the state campaigning for his dad and brother, both former presidents who still live in Texas. Bush's son, George P., currently serves as the land commissioner of Texas.
"My intention is to win the Texas primary, just in case anybody's curious about it," Bush told reporters.
Bush was introduced at the restaurant by state Rep. J.M. Lozano, a Kingsville Republican, who called the former Florida governor the next president of the United States. After Bush's news conference, Lozano told the Tribune he has not yet endorsed Bush but considers him one of a few 2016 candidates he's currently backing.
Asked about Trump's influence on the 2016 race, Lozano said it was a welcome development. The lawmaker recalled how the issue of illegal immigration recently hit home when the school his children attend was put in lockdown because a criminal in the country unlawfully was on the loose.
"When Donald Trump brought it up, I don't know why, it just got more attention because other people have been talking about it for a long time," Lozano said. "I'm glad he brought it up and I'm glad it's getting attention."
Not everyone at Bush's event was pleased with Trump's influence on the presidential contest. J.J. Ballenger, a local student whose family has lived in the Rio Grande Valley for more than a century, said he wants "nothing to do with Donald Trump" while praising Bush's appreciation of the immigrant experience.
"Being this close to the border, I get to see firsthand everyday what it means to be a first-generation American," Ballenger said. "I personally am not a first-generation American, but I meet them everyday and no one has more love and more passion to be here than first-generation Americans."
While Bush sought to distance himself from Trump on Monday, Democrats were eager to link the two. Clinton’s campaign reacted to Bush’s McAllen comments with a video comparing his immigration positions to those of Trump. The Texas Democratic Party welcomed Bush to the state by accusing him of trying to appeal to the same wing of the GOP as Trump.
“So far, all we have seen from Jeb Bush and Donald Trump’s Republican Party is a desire to pander to a nativist Tea Party fringe base and cater to the needs of corporate special interests,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.
Bush was not the only presidential candidate stumping Monday in Texas. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, another Florida Republican, was scheduled to attend fundraisers in Beaumont and Houston.