In a gathering of conservatives in Washington D.C., former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush took issue with President Barack Obama's executive order that suspends deportation for three years for up to 5 million undocumented immigrants.
At the same time Bush, who is considering running for president in 2016, said at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that it was unrealistic to expect the country's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants to be deported. He expressed support for offering them an opportunity to legalize their status.
“A great country needs to enforce the borders,” Bush said in a question-and-answer session with Fox News host Sean Hannity.
But he added: “There is no plan to deport 11 million people," according to published reports.
So the United States needs a plan for dealing with this large population, Bush said, such as giving those who meet certain criteria a path to legalization. He said that to earn this path, immigrants might be required to learn English, and not have a criminal record, among other things.
Bush noted that he was firmly opposed to Obama's executive order on immigration, and that if he were president, he would repeal it. He objected, however, to letting the controversial order become the pivotal factor leading to the defeat of a spending plan for Department of Homeland Security.
“The simple fact is, the president has gone way beyond his powers to do this, and Congress has every right to reinstate their responsibility,” Bush said.
"Look, I'm not an expert on the ways of Washington," the son of one president and brother of another said. "It makes no sense to me that we're not funding the control of our border, which is the whole argument. I'm missing something."
With directives issued in 2012 and earlier this year, Obama largely eliminated the threat of deportation for more than 4 million immigrants who entered the country illegally, including some brought to the U.S. as youngsters.
Conservatives in Congress initially linked those orders with funding for the Department of Homeland Security.
But its current budget was set to run out late Friday night, and Congressional Republicans were trying to approve a short-term spending bill that would avert a partial agency shutdown hours before it was to begin.
The interim plan, which was defeated in the House early Friday evening,called for leaving in place the orders that Republicans have vowed to overturn.
Bush said he considered Obama's orders extraordinary and illegal. He predicted they would be struck down if Congress fails to act first.
A federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked the administration from carrying out Obama's 2014 policy. The White House has appealed that ruling, and Obama has said he would take the case to the Supreme Court if necessary.
"The simple fact is the president has gone way beyond his constitutional powers to do this. Congress has every right to reinstate their responsibility," Bush said.
Bush also used his turn to try to win over conservative activists who are queasy about his record on immigration and education policies.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.