Bush: A 'Benevolent Spirit' Needed on Immigration

Former president makes a rare foray into the political debate on a hot-button topic.

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Former President George W. Bush gives opening remarks at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas for a conference titled "Immigration and 4% Growth: How Immigrants Grow the U.S. Economy," Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012, in Dallas.
Former President George W. Bush gives opening remarks at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas for a conference titled "Immigration and 4% Growth: How Immigrants Grow the U.S. Economy," Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012, in Dallas.

Former President George W. Bush has made a rare foray into politics by urging the nation's leaders to show a "benevolent spirit" in the debate over immigration reform.

Bush didn't support any specific reform proposals but his tone suggested that he is still an advocate of a relatively tolerant approach to illegal immigration.

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Bush said policy makers should "keep in mind the contributions of immigrants" and added: "Immigrants come with new skills and new ideas. They fill a critical gap in the labor market. ... They invigorate our soul. They work hard for a chance at a better life."

While he was in office from 2001 to 2009, Bush favored establishing a pathway to legal residency for illegal immigrants but never managed to win congressional passage for the legislation. His views put him at odds with conservatives in his own Republican party who took a hard line against illegal immigrants, a stridency that eventually caused many Hispanic voters to turn against the GOP.

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Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney lost a huge majority of Hispanic voters to President Obama in the November election partly because he was perceived as anti-immigrant. Obama plans to revive the immigration issue next year, and some Republicans are re-evaluating their views in an effort to appeal to more Hispanics.

Bush's remarks can be seen as his own effort to push the GOP toward the center on the issue.

Bush's policies and his sustained outreach to Hispanics enabled him to win about 35 percent of the Latino vote in 2005 and 40 percent in 2004, a far better showing than Romney's.

Bush spoke Tuesday at a policy conference in Dallas hosted by the George W. Bush Presidential Center, a policy and research organization.

Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.