Could Have Phrased That Better: Jeb Bush Edition

Jeb Bush at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to the Majority conference (via the Washington Post):

“Immigrants create far more businesses than native-born Americans […] Immigrants are more fertile, and they love families, and they have more intact families, and they bring a younger population. Immigrants create an engine of economic prosperity.”

Kudos to Bush for discussing the important economic and communal contributions of immigrants. Even better, he’s talking about their economic effects without falling back on “they do the jobs that American’s don’t want to do.” Generally speaking, this is exactly the sort of messaging pro-“pro-immigration”-reform people should be using… except of course for a single, incredibly charged word he works in there.

Unfortunately, the use of “fertile” immediately means that everything good about that statement will be ignored.

I’m not sure that the statistics back-up the fact that immigrant communities have significantly higher birth rates than US citizen communities (especially when you look across different ethnic groups). What he’s really saying is that immigrants have a higher birth rate than *white* communities.

Talking in this way, immediately sets up a framework where immigrants are always ethnic minorities (because, of course, we never have any White immigrants coming to this country).

There is little-to-no scientific evidence to suggest that fertility is tied to racial genetics. There are without a doubt cultural factors that contribute. But fertility is largely understood as an innate quality. If a woman is in-fertile, its thought to be a problem of the body, not cultural practice. And, when one takes a historic look at racist texts, one of the most common accusations directed at “lesser races” is that they breed at “animal” rates due to super- (or rather sub-) human fertility.

To be clear, I don’t think that Bush intended this to be racist. But given the history of race and immigration in this country, it’s hard to not read those words without hearing the echo of past racism. And ultimately that undercuts what turns out to be a valuable message.

And what’s potentially going to be worse for Bush, and Republicans for a whole, are all the people who are going to come out of the woodwork and twist themselves into knots trying to prove why Bush was correct to have said what he did and deny any racist reading of these words.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, US Politics, , ,
Matt Bernius
About Matt Bernius
Matt Bernius is a design researcher working to create more equitable government systems and experiences. He's currently a Principal User Researcher on Code for America's "GetCalFresh" program, helping people apply for SNAP food benefits in California. Prior to joining CfA, he worked at Measures for Justice and at Effective, a UX agency. Matt has an MA from the University of Chicago.


  1. john personna says:

    We can take Bush at face value, and at that level “fertile” is a good word, with positive associations.

    Anyone with a fear of minorities in their heart will take it differently, of course.

  2. Matt Bernius says:

    @john personna:
    Again, I don’t think Bush is making an intentionally racist statement here. And his overall message is a good one.

    But talking about any ethnically defined group of people in terms of “fertility” is deeply problematic. Let’s switch the word to another physical trait and it’s still bad:

    They’re more “athletic” than Americans.
    They’ve got better “rhythm” that Americans.

    That’s different than acknowledging things like “works harder” or “families stick together,” While one could quibble about the essentialist nature of those statements, they’re dealing with cultural traits versus what are taken as inherent genetic trait (athleticism, rhythm, fertility).

  3. Anon says:

    “Fertility” has two different meanings, however. One meaning refers to the capability of producing offspring. The other refers to whether or not offspring are actually being produced. For an example of the latter, see this. The chart does not intend to imply anything about whether or not the population in the countries is capable of producing offspring.

    Here is a paper examining the fertility (in the latter sense) of immigrants.

    It’s likely, it seems, that Bush was using the latter sense of the word. That said, it would definitely have been a good idea to have said “have more kids” rather than “fertile”.

  4. Caj says:

    Faith & Freedom! Two words Republicans think they have the lock on! They are only ones who can keep us free. They are the only party of faith. Let’s see. 911 happened on their watch and boy are we free after that? Going to Iraq based on sheer lies! More terrorists created after that fiasco. As for faith, yes the family values crew who hang so much on faith and bible thumping yet tolerate people who have had affairs and are bare faced liars to thrive within their party. They are an incredible party and NOT in a good way!

  5. Matt Bernius says:

    I definitely acknowledge that there is the second definition. But given that Bush is a politician and therefore someone who should understand rhetoric and the implications of words, this is a really poor choice of words.

    Again, again, I don’t think Jeb Bush was intending to use this in a racist fashion.

    BTW, interesting note from the abstract of that paper you linked to:

    Perhaps the most interesting finding of this study is that immigrants from these on average high fertility source countries were found to have very similar unadjusted fertility to native-born women.

  6. Anon says:

    @Matt Bernius: Which suggests that Bush was stereotyping (incorrectly) immigrant families. If you had asked me to guess, I would also have said that immigrant families on average have more kids.

    At any rate, I do think that Republicans have a way of turning off immigrants who might otherwise naturally gravitate towards them.

  7. JohnMcC says:

    As one would expect from a speaker at the Faith-and-Freedom soiree, Mr Bush’s talk was more in the line of cliche than analysis. Pew Research actually looked into the immigrants = large families stereotype. It turns out to have taken a large downturn during the Great Recession.

    “…the birth rate for U.S.-born women decreased 6% during those years, but the birth rate for foreign-born women plunged 14%…. The birth rate for Mexican immigrant women fell even more, by 23%”


  8. michael reynolds says:

    I tend not to want to hold some poor word choice against a guy. Pols do a lot of talking in public. A lot.

    Sadly I now do a bit of public speaking as well. I talk at schools and bookstores and conventions, and usually to an audience of minors and people who care for minors. I go in with a simple directive to myself: do not say Fwck! There are other words I’m not supposed to say as well, but the big one for me is the infamous F-word.

    I failed once. I dropped my iPad and yelled Fwck! to 200 seventh-graders. Of course this cemented my popularity with the kids, but still: bad Michael.

    A pol goes out there and has a whole long, nuanced list of stuff he’s not supposed to say. It’s impossible. Sooner or later you’ll just babble something stupid. I don’t think we have a basis for concluding that Jeb is some kind of immigrant hater. I think he just had a bad day.

  9. Matt Bernius says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I don’t think we have a basis for concluding that Jeb is some kind of immigrant hater.

    I agree. Though I think it’s worth focusing on why it’s a poor turn of phrase.

    I think he just had a bad day.

    If it was an off the cuff remark or reaction, I agree (see your dropped iPad).

    If this was a prepared speech, then there’s less of an excuse.

    Again, from my perspective, the real unfortunate part is that this is a great example of how a single word choice can cause the rest of one’s message to be ignored.

  10. JohnMcC says:

    At least he didn’t say that immigrant families have a ‘quiverfull’ family. THAT would have been a dog-whistle. But I think his auditors heard what he meant to say.

  11. beth says:

    I think it is a dogwhistle to the Republican base but I’ve never gotten that vibe from Bush (I lived in Florida during his governorship). I was always impressed with how he would go on tv and give hurricane press conferences/updates in English and then stay and do them all over again in Spanish.

    I can remember my Italian dad bemoaning all the Latinos moving into our town. “They breed like rabbits” he said. This coming from a man who was one of eight children.

  12. superdestroyer says:

    After writing an entire book where Jeb Bush argued that Americans were too lazy to do blue collar work and too stupid to do high tech work, Gov. Bush decides to double down and say that Americans are too incompetent to start or operate their own business, too selfish to bother having children and too defective to have stable families.

    Of course, if anyone was willing to look up the statistics, they would quickly learn that more than 50% of Latino children are born to single mothers, that the unemployment rate for Latinos is much higher than whites, and that the unemployment rate for STEM workers is going up.

    It should amaze no one that Jeb Bush, just like his brother, is incapable of reading and understanding his briefing books.

  13. bill says:

    none of the Bush’s were charismatic speakers- but you could figure out what they mean at least.
    and he’s actually married to a Mexican, and has Hispanic kids due to that so i doubt if he’s anti-Hispanic.

  14. Matt Bernius says:

    Again, I don’t think Jeb is anti-hispanic. But I do think ill-phrased comments like these demonstrates the broader problems that Republicans have in immigrant outreach.

    Which brings me to:

    and he’s actually married to a Mexican, and has Hispanic kids due to that so i doubt if he’s anti-Hispanic.

    This isn’t directed at Bill, but his comments point out some longstanding notions about race. Namely that while Bush himself is *White*, his kids are Hispanic because his wife is Mexican. Again, we run up against the concept of “one-drop.”