On the first day of his national book tour, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said that undocumented immigrants should get a chance to become permanent U.S. residents, but not U.S. citizens.

At a talk sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, Bush said that under his proposal, undocumented immigrants would plead guilty to entering illegally, and would pay fines or perform community service. Then they would be required to pay taxes, learn English and stay out of trouble with the law.

“They’d be allowed to stay here, like a green card holder,” Bush said, adding that their permanent resident card might be a different color from that of other legal immigrants. “But if you want to become a citizen, you’d have to go back to your country.”

Bush, who was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, is married to a Mexican national.  

Legal immigrants who are not naturalized U.S. citizens cannot vote, serve on a jury or hold many government jobs. U.S. citizens also get priority when petitioning relatives from overseas to come to live in the United States. 

In his book, “Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution,” Bush wrote: “It is absolutely vital to the integrity of our immigration system that actions have consequences – in this case, that those who violated the laws can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship.”

To do otherwise, Bush argued in the book, co-authored with conservative attorney Clint Bolick, would be to encourage future illegal immigration.

“Illegal immigrants who do wish to become citizens should have the choice of returning to their native countries and applying through normal immigration processes that now would be much more open than before.”

That stance created a firestorm of criticism Monday, with immigrant advocacy groups accusing Bush of “flip-flopping” on earlier, more moderate positions on immigration. Bush has emerged in recent years as the voice of moderation in the Republican Party on immigration. 

He has urged his party to soften their tone on immigration and to be open to less hard line stances on such things as allowing undocumented immigrants to legalize – an idea many conservatives oppose, viewing it as “amnesty” and rewarding lawbreakers.

He has at times over the years suggested he would support a pathway to citizenship. But now is steadfastly against one – at least a direct path.

“Bush endorsed the ‘permanent underclass’ concept that has been floated by some House Republicans – legalization but stopping short of offering undocumented immigrants an opportunity to earn American citizenship,” said a statement by America’s Voice, a Washington D.C.-based group that supports more lenient immigration policies.

Bush also said that immigration policy must be demand-driven, instead of favoring family reunification. He raised the example of Alabama, whose strict crackdown on undocumented immigrants left many industries, such as poultry processing, hurting for workers.

“They weren’t getting native-born Americans to do the work,” he said.

Immigrants are also an important source of high tech work, Bush said. Other countries, he and Bolick said, are in fierce competition with the United States to lure the best workers from around the world to their nations.

“The 21st century is dramatically different than the 20th and 19th centuries,” Bush said. “For us to be successful, we need to shift to be competitive economically. I don’t think that’s trampling over our immigrant heritage.”

Bush and Bolick said that a pathway to legalization should not be contingent to securing the border first.

“That's like saying we’re not going to treat the cancer until we get rid of the symptoms,” Bolick said.

Bush said he favors a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as minors, and who meet a strict set of criteria, including graduating from high school or serving in the military.

Bush, who is mentioned often as a possible 2016 GOP contender for the presidency, also said he supports having local police work with federal agents to enforce immigration law.

Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at elizabeth.llorente@foxnewslatino.com

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