Former Florida governor Jeb Bush speaks during the 2015 National Auto Dealers Association (NADA) conference on Jan. 23, 2015 in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty

Jeb Bush: ‘Immigrants are engines of economic vitality’

Updated

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush reaffirmed his support for a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants just as the GOP’s other potential 2016 candidates gathered at an event organized by Rep. Steve King, the party’s most prominent anti-immigration flamethrower.

“We need to find a way, a path to legalized status for those that have come here and have languished in the shadows,” Bush said Friday, speaking  in San Francisco at a conference of the country’s autodealers. “There’s no way that they’re going to be deported — no one’s suggesting an organized effort to do that. The cost of that would be extraordinary.”

RELATED: 2016 GOP race explodes with flurry of campaign activity

Bush’s remarks came the same day that King kicked off a key event in Iowa for 2016 Republicans. Once a GOP pariah, the Iowa Republican has risen in stature as the party has moved to the right on immigration. Just this week, King called an DREAMer attending Obama’s State of the Union a “deportable.” And he’s made it clear that he will be closely watching all the Republicans to make sure they don’t moderate their views on the issues he holds dear.

Bush described his broader vision for comprehensive immigration reform, arguing that it’s essential to ensuring the country’s long-term economic growth. “Demography is destiny, and the aging population with fewer workers means fewer growth,” he said, describing how falling fertility rates could slow down the economy in the long term, as they have in other industrialized nations. He added: “Immigrants are engines of economic vitality.”

The reforms he endorsed in his speech fall in line with the basic pillars a bipartisan group of senators had agreed upon before their immigration overhaul effort fell apart in Congress: Change the legal immigration system to prioritize economic growth; improve not only border security, but also legal visa enforcement; and impose new requirements for English and civics education for newcomers. But unlike the Senate plan, Bush did not explicitly endorse a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, only a path to legal status. 

“We need to find a way that they pay fines, they learn English, they work, they get at the back of the line, and they come out of the shadows so that they can have the full productivity so they can be partners in the strategy of high economic growth,” Bush said. 

Bush has flip-flopped on endorsing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in recent years. But his remarks on Friday still put him at odds with a party whose last presidential candidate called for “self-deportation.” 

Bush also underscored his commitment to fighting economic inequality as the GOP has increasingly embraced the issue. Ordinary Americans are “frustrated and see a small portion of the population on the economy’s up escalator. Portfolios are strong, but paychecks are weak,” he said. Like other Republicans, however, he stressed that the government is the problem, and cutting tax rates is the answer. 

RELATED: The GOP’s inequality conundrum

“Lower taxes as low as they can go and eliminate as many deductions as you could,” Bush said. “It would unleash capital investment in this country to create high-wage jobs.”

Bush concluded his speech on Friday with remarks that seemed tailored to counter ideological hardliners like King. Asked where the Republican Party needed to be headed, broadly speaking, Bush replied: “It has to be grounded in an optimistic message, not a reactionary message.” He added: “Hope and a positive agenda win out over anger and reaction every day of the week.”

California, Jeb Bush and Steve King

Jeb Bush: 'Immigrants are engines of economic vitality'

Updated