WASHINGTON -- Hoping to preempt potential riffs with one minority group critical to Republican chances in the general election, GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush may have sparked anger with another.
The former Florida governor has been in hot water since last week, when he used the controversial term "anchor baby" to describe immigrant mothers who come to the U.S. to have children for the purpose of getting them citizenship. Hispanic groups have long considered the term deplorable for its insinuation that mothers would use procreation as a method of gaming the immigration system. And while Bush pleaded that he lacked a better description, on Monday he offered a new explanation: He wasn't referring to Latinos at all, he explained, but rather Asian immigrants.
“What I was talking about was the specific case of fraud being committed, where there’s organized efforts, and frankly it’s more related to Asian people coming into our country having children in that organized effort, taking advantage of a noble concept, which is birthright citizenship,” he said.
Though the former Florida governor was describing a real phenomenon known as “birth tourism,” his clarification sparked an entirely new set of recriminations, this time from Asian-Americans. It also provided yet another data point for how difficult it has been for Republican candidates to navigate the immigration debate during this primary process. Bush has said that candidates running for the White House should be prepared to lose the primary election in order to win the general. But in explaining his view of anchor babies, he seems to have tiptoed away from that advice.
"Asian-Americans are actually the canary in the coal mine, I believe, for Republicans," Bush said in 2013. "If we have lost connectivity to emerging voters, not because of our policies so much, but because we are not engaged in issues of importance to them, then I think we pay a price."
Indeed, in the 2012 election, President Barack Obama won handily among Latino voters, with 71 percent choosing him over Mitt Romney. But his margin of victory over Romney among Asian voters was even higher: 73 percent to Romney’s 26 percent. Like Latino voters, Asian voters said that one of the factors that influenced their vote was the GOP’s nativist rhetoric on immigration.
In its post-election "autopsy report," the Republican National Committee recognized the importance of this voting block and encouraged the GOP to improve its minority outreach and inclusion.
In a section addressing Asian voters, the report advised:
The Republican Party is one of tolerance and respect, and we need to ensure that the tone of our message is always reflective of these core principles. In the modern media environment, a poorly phrased argument or out-of-context statement can spiral out of control and reflect poorly on the Party as a whole.
Bush’s remarks are far from the only ones Republican candidates have made this cycle that are at clear odds with the RNC's prescription. But because Bush is the perceived "serious candidate" in the race, his words could do more damage than they could if they came from another GOP contender.
"Well, it doesn't help," Republican strategist John Feehery said in an email. "This is precisely the reason we needed to pass immigration reform in the last Congress."
When asked how the Republican Party can best reach minority voters while catering to the party’s base, which wants a tough stance on immigration, Bush’s GOP opponent Gov. Chris Christie (N.J.) suggested that Bush had made a misstep.
“The fact is that you don't need to be pandering one way or the other. You don't do, like, focus group trips to the border and speak Spanish and then criticize Asians,” he told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly on Tuesday.
At a minimum, Bush's comments provided an opening for Democrats, with many of the party's Asian-American leaders offering swift condemnation.
“No matter which ethnic group you’re referring to, ‘anchor babies’ is a slur that stigmatizes children from birth,” Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who leads the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said in a statement. “All that is accomplished through talk of anchor-babies -- be they from Latin America, Asia, Europe, or Africa -- is to use xenophobic fears to further isolate immigrants. It’s time for our country to return to a substantive discussion on immigration.”
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), the first Asian-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate and currently the only senator of Asian heritage, called Bush’s comments “stunningly offensive and out of touch.”
While Feehery expressed modest concern about the impact of Bush's "anchor baby" explanation, other Republicans shrugged off the comments. John Ying, chairman of the Asian Republican Coalition, said that he thinks most Asian voters are more worried about other immigration issues, such as the number of visas for students and workers, than they are about birth tourism or even Bush's "anchor babies" remarks.
"I personally am not that offended by it. This is not an issue, frankly, I've even thought about before until now,” he said. “The vast majority of Asian-Americans are very rule-abiding people, they like following the laws. So I don't think there's a wide view that this is something that this community condones or encourages, so I don't think the wide community is going to take offense at this. I personally don't find the terms offensive, I find it more technical -- there are people that are coming here to game our system.”
Yet many Asian-Americans -- activists and non activists alike -- took to social media on Tuesday to express disapproval. On Monday evening, Jason Fong, a high school student in California, started the Twitter hashtag #MyAsianAmericanStory to encourage fellow Asian-Americans to share their stories about immigration and assimilation.
Fong told The Huffington Post that he wanted to highlight that Asian immigrants come from diverse backgrounds and experiences and that there is no single, overarching narrative that defines the group.
“Bush doesn’t get to tell my story,” he said. “Hearing Bush's remarks in particular, especially from someone considered to be a relatively moderate Republican, I realized just how unaware some Americans may be of the Asian-American immigrant experience. The clear negative impression and stereotypes that he seems to foster about our community are very offensive.”
Elise Foley contributed reporting.