College Station, TX (CBS) - Putting himself directly at odds with many in his party, Jeb Bush said Sunday that many immigrants who come to the country illegally do so as "an act of love" rather than a crime.
The former Florida governor spoke at an event marking the 25th anniversary of his father's presidency at his presidential library and museum in College Station, Texas. While the event was closed to the press, it was moderated by a Fox News anchor and portions were later aired on television.
In a nod to the political price he might pay for the remarks, Bush preceded his comments by saying, "I'm going to say this, and it'll be on tape, and so be it."
"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. 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. Yes, they broke the law, but it's not a felony. It's an act of love," Bush said.
While he said there should be a "price" for such actions, he called that vein of illegal immigration "a different kind of crime."
The immigration debate has divided the Republican Party, with few lawmakers willing to risk alienating their base by backing any approach that gives leniency to people who came here illegally. Bush's comments generated some quick backlash on Twitter from people who took issue with his words.
The Senate passed a bill last June that would have overhauled the entire system and provided a long-term, conditional pathway to citizenship for some of the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally, but it has stalled in the House where there is little consensus on how or even whether to tackle the issue.
Bush spoke favorably of the Senate bill, noting, "a great country ought to know where those folks are and politely ask them to leave."
The heir apparent to the Bush dynasty has stuck to even his less popular beliefs as he considers a possible presidential bid in 2016. Bush says he'll make a decision by the end of the year.
In the meantime, he noted, "not running has generated more interest than if I said I was running."
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