But the crisis on the southern border involving an influx of nearly 60,000 migrant children this year from Central America may help Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Rick Perry repair a broken trust on immigration with conservatives.
All three are positioning themselves in a way that could help them make peace.
Perry, as governor of Texas, is out in front publicly since his state is directly affected, while Rubio, a Florida senator, and Bush, a former Florida governor, have been quiet.
And Republican strategist Ana Navarro said that’s OK.
“I don’t think you have to play a leading role on every issue,” she said.
Both Rubio and Bush have been leaders on immigration in the past.
Rubio took a risk last year by taking a leadership role in crafting a comprehensive reform bill that passed the Senate but crashed and burned in the House.
Conservatives attacked him for supporting “amnesty,” their opinion of providing a path to legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States.
Rubio then distanced himself from the Senate package that he helped broker in favor of a piecemeal approach backed by some House Republicans that also has gone nowhere.
Bush offered a compassionate tone to the immigration debate before the border crisis made headlines.
In April, he said many immigrants come to the United States illegally as “an act of love” and “an act of commitment to your family.”
He admitted that he might be stepping on a land mine before he made the statement. “But the way I look at this, and I’m going to say this, and it’ll be on tape and so be it.”
Bush, whose immigration stance is at odds with many in his party, has avoided risk by not addressing the southern border issue until now.
In a statement, Bush placed the onus on President Barack Obama to address the situation but also said the minor immigrants, many of them who crossed the border unaccompanied, should be sent home.
That’s in line with many Republicans, especially conservatives, as well as the stated position of the White House. How that is accomplished most effectively, however, is a sticking point at the moment.
“It is clear we have a humanitarian crisis on our border. Governor Bush believes President Obama must step up and show leadership. These children must be returned to their home countries,” his spokeswoman said.
Bush then pushed for an immigration overhaul.
“Ultimately, we must overhaul this nation’s broken immigration system to prevent situations like this in the future.”
Bush has been active in the political arena, however, recently endorsing and campaigning with Senate candidate Scott Brown, a Republican running in the first presidential primary state of New Hampshire.
As for Rubio, he has put out 80 press releases since the beginning of June. But not one has addressed the border situation. But the son of Cuban immigrants hasn’t completely skirted the issue, either.
In an interview in Orlando this month, Rubio said the children must be treated with compassion, but like Bush and the White House believe “they will have to return.”
Rubio also said he’s opposed to Obama’s $3.7 billion emergency funding request to Congress that includes money to care for immigrant kids while they await legal proceedings to determine whether they can stay in the country.
Rubio said money needs to be spent on “permanent border security measures.” He also said in an interview that the current immigration crisis should be “a catalyst” for securing the border.
After being criticized by conservatives for his role in the Senate bill, Rubio shifted his position and said the southern border must be secured first, which is a base line for conservatives before any discussion of reform can take place.
Perry has been far more aggressive than Rubio and Bush with his state Ground Zero in the migrant crisis.
Republicans have followed his lead. He confronted the White House and made his points directly to Obama in a meeting this month.
Perry also has checked the “secure border” box.
“If you have a patient who is bleeding profusely, the first thing you have to do is stop the bleeding, and that’s the reason we have been so adamant about securing the border,” Perry said recently on “Face the Nation.”
Although he supported a secure border before, his laser-like focus on the issue during the current crisis, despite the numerous other factors that are involved, has endeared him to reform skeptics.
While the three have adopted different strategies and their professional roles are different, they are positioning themselves in a way that may appease many Republican voters.
While more Republicans than Democrats support border security as a solution, the conservative position has become even firmer since the border crisis began.
According to a Gallup poll this week, 17% of Americans think immigration is the most important issue facing the country right now. And Pew poll found that most Americans think the children involved should be deported.
In addition, Pew found fewer Republicans supported a path to citizenship, 64% in February compared to 54% now. And among the more conservative part of the Republican base, only 41% now support a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, compared to 56% five months ago.