WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told religious conservatives Friday that the future of the nation's economy depends upon immigrants in part because they "are more fertile" and create more businesses than native-born Americans.
Bush, thought to be weighing a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, said that immigrants are particularly important to helping create more taxpayers to fund the safety net for the retiring baby boomer generation.
"Immigrants are more fertile, and they love families," Bush said and added, "Immigrants create far more businesses than native-born Americans over the last 20 years."
Bush's remark that immigrants are more fertile was met with silence by those attending his ballroom speech during the Faith and Freedom Coalition's annual conference. Former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed created the group.
A spokesman said that Bush meant that immigrants, Hispanics in particular, have larger families and more children.
Bush, a brother of former President George W. Bush, was among several potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates speaking this week at the conference.
Following painful election losses last fall driven by the Hispanic vote, Republican leaders have called on the GOP to embrace immigration reform. However, some conservatives have branded the effort "amnesty" and called for rejection of efforts to give immigrants in the U.S. illegally a pathway to citizenship.
Foreign-born mothers in the U.S. typically have more children than women born in the United States. The National Center for Health Statistics found that the birth rate for foreign-born women was nearly 50 percent higher.
Immigrants tend to be younger than the average American when they arrive in the U.S., helping to account for their higher birth rates. Higher birth rates among immigrants, particularly among Latinos, have been driving population increases in the U.S. nonwhite population.
Before being granted legal status, Bush said, immigrants in the country illegally should pay a fine, learn English and be blocked from receiving welfare benefits.
Bush, whose wife is Mexican, said the nation must allow more immigrants "to pursue their dreams in our country with a vengeance to create more opportunities for all of us."
"If we don't do it, we will be in decline," he said.
"They bring a younger population," Bush continued. "Immigrants create an engine of economic prosperity."
Associated Press writer Hope Yen contributed to this report.