In New Hampshire, Bush speaks Spanish, empathizes with Syrian refugees

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BEDFORD, N.H. — Responding to a question from a tearful Syrian-American, who asked the 2016 GOP presidential candidate about his stance on the Syrian refugee crisis, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Wednesday that “it’s important to be on the side of people seeking freedom.” The woman, who questioned Bush at a New Hampshire town meeting, said that she had for years been supporting 14 family members in Syria who had recently fled to Turkey.

Bush was empathetic, tying the woman’s story to his own family as he explained that his daughter-in-law is an Iraqi Christian. Christians have been targeted in the Middle East by terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. Millions of people have fled Syria as a brutal civil war rages across the country. More than 100,000 civilians reportedly have been killed in the fighting.

“These aren’t people just fleeing to immigrate for a better life,” Bush said. “These are people leaving because they will be killed if they don’t.”

Like his older brother, former president George W. Bush, Jeb styles himself as a more “compassionate conservative,” often drawing sharp distinctions between his policies and those of his Republican rivals. Presidential candidate Donald Trump was also in New Hampshire on Wednesday, and told his audience that if he won the presidency he intended to send Syrian refugees back.

Bush, on the other hand, said that the U.S. must screen refugees to bar known terrorists or others who might be a threat. But he added that America is “duty-bound” to provide support. America should be actively working to remove Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Islamic State, a terrorist organization, Bush said to great applause.

Bush advocates the use of force against Assad’s regime, criticizing the dictator’s use of barrel bombs. If the Syrian government continues using these devices, he said, the U.S. should wipe out Assad’s air force.

Bush has also proposed training Sunni leaders in the area. He said that Syria’s neighbors, including Jordan, should work to create safe zones for training operations and to also help host refugees fleeing the violence.

The question of whether the U.S. should take in Syrian refugees marked a shift in the political debate on immigration, which for months has focused on how to stem the tide of illegal immigration from Mexico.

Bush, whose wife, Columba, is from Mexico, has staked out a more moderate position on immigration than some of his Republican rivals. He has focused on border security and increased enforcement, including cracking down on those who overstay visas. He has also called for eliminating so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to hand over illegal immigrants to the federal government for deportation after they’ve been arrested. Unlike Trump, who favors mass deportations of those already in the U.S., Bush supports what he calls “earned legal status.” He would require immigrants in the U.S. illegally  to pay a fine and any taxes owed, pass a criminal background check, and learn English, before they could apply for citizenship. Those on the “path to citizenship” would not be entitled to welfare or other government benefits until they became naturalized citizens.

Bush is popular in the Latino community, in part for his stance on immigration, but also because of his fluency in Spanish. At one point during the meeting, some members of the crowd booed as an audience member asked Bush a question about climate change in Spanish. Undeterred, Bush, who has said his family sometimes speaks the language at home, proceeded to engage the questioner in Spanish before offering a translation of her question. It had focused on Pope Francis’s comments on climate change during his recent U.S. visit. Bush responded that, although he is appreciative of the pope’s views,  the pope has acknowledged that he is not a scientist.

Bush, along with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, has come under fire from Trump and other Republicans for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail. Bush has defended his use of the language when addressing Hispanics, telling opponents that he will not stop campaigning for votes in the Latino community.

Other presidential candidates in New Hampshire:

Carson polishes outsider image at New Hampshire gathering

Paul prefers a government shutdown over business as usual

Clinton calls for action to cut student loan debt for 40 million Americans

Christie dismisses ‘barcoding’ reports in immigration comments to N.H. gathering

Sen. Graham emphasizes foreign policy credentials at N.H. town meeting

Cruz attends town hall meet-and-greet in New Hampshire