Making a rare return to the political arena, former President George W. Bush urged Congress on Wednesday to reach a "positive resolution" on immigration reform, an issue that eluded him during his presidency and now confronts fellow Republicans in the aftermath of a 2012 election drubbing.
In brief remarks at a naturalization ceremony at his presidential library in Dallas, Bush avoided wading into the merits of specific legislation pending in Congress, but said it was important for lawmakers to recognize the benefits of immigration to the nation's future. While he didn't directly endorse a Senate-approved plan his comments suggested the need for Republicans to deal with immigration reform in a broad way.
"I don't intend to get involved in the politics or the specifics of policy, but I do hope there's a positive resolution to the debate," he said. "And I hope, during the debate, we keep a benevolent spirit in mind, and we understand the contributions immigrants make to our country."
The former president spoke as House Republicans consider how they should respond to comprehensive immigration reform approved last month by the Senate. Some Republicans have said the party needs to help fashion immigration reform following President Barack Obama's sweeping victory in the 2012 elections among Latino voters. But many House Republicans remain unconvinced that endorsing a pathway to citizenship for 11 million unauthorized immigrants would be the right approach.
Bush helped make inroads with the growing population of Hispanic voters during his presidency but Republicans have since lost ground and some worry it could irreparably harm their ability to win future elections.
The former president has largely avoided the political spotlight since leaving the White House in January 2009 but has advocated for immigration reform in the past. During his second term, he pushed for similar legislation that would have given immigrants living in the United States unlawfully a pathway to citizenship.
In his comments, Bush noted the importance of upholding current immigration laws. "We're also a nation of laws. And we must enforce our laws. America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time," he said.
"We can uphold our tradition of assimilating immigrants, and honoring our heritage of our nation built on the rule of law. But we have a problem. The laws governing the immigration system aren't working; the system is broken," Bush said.
It was unclear if Bush's public encouragement would help spur House Republicans into action or potentially undermine reform efforts. While his public approval ratings have improved, the 43rd president was deeply unpopular when he left the White House and many conservatives rebelled against his push for immigration reform.
The latest attempt to address immigration reform cleared the Democratic-controlled Senate last month. It would spend $46 billion on border security, create new legal avenues for workers to come to the country, require employers to verify their workers' legal status and offer eventual citizenship for those here illegally.
But the vote in the House is likely to be much more difficult. Many conservative Republicans represent districts with few Hispanic voters and may be less-inclined to act on immigration. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he will not bring the Senate bill to the House floor and has said no legislation will move without the support of a majority of his Republicans.
Boehner has said border security must come first and many Republicans in the House support a piecemeal, step-by-step approach, rather than a single big bill like the one the Senate passed.
Panel discussions on immigration were being held at the George W. Bush Presidential Center following the naturalization ceremony for 20 people from 13 countries. One of the panels centered on how immigrants help drive the Texas economy.
Thank you very much, and welcome to Freedom Hall. I am incredibly grateful to be able to witness this joyous and uplifting ceremony. It will be inspiring to see people of different ages, and different countries, raise their right hands and take the oath to become citizens of the United States.
All who swear the oath of citizenship are doing more than completing a legal process. You are making a lifetime pledge to support the values and the laws of America. The pledge comes with great privileges. It also comes with great responsibilities.
For some of you, this day comes after a long and difficult journey. For all of you, this is a defining moment in your lives. America is your country now. It is more than your home. I welcome you to this free nation. I congratulate you and your families. And it is an honor to call you fellow Americans.
Our immigrant heritage has enriched America's history. It continues to shape our society. Each generation of Americans -- of immigrants -- brings a renewal to our national character and adds vitality to our culture. Newcomers have a special way of appreciating the opportunities of America, and when they seize those opportunities, our whole nation benefits.
In the 1790s, an immigrant from Ireland designed the White House. I’m familiar with the place. He did a fine job. He also helped build the Capitol. In the 1990s, 200 years later, an immigrant from Russia helped create the Internet search engine Google. In between, new citizens have made contributions in virtually every professional field, and millions of newcomers have strengthened their communities through their hard work, through their love of family, and through their faith.
We're a nation of immigrants, and we must uphold that tradition -- which has strengthened our country in so many ways. We're also a nation of laws, and we must enforce our laws. America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time. We can uphold our traditions of assimilating immigrants and honoring our heritage as a nation built on the rule of law. But we have a problem. The laws governing the immigration system are broken. The system is broken.
We’re now in an important debate about reforming those laws, and that’s good. I don’t particularly want to be involved in the politics, or the specifics of policy. But I do hope there is a positive resolution to the debate. And I hope during the debate that we keep a benevolent spirit in mind, and we understand the contributions immigrants make to our country.
We must remember that the vast majority of immigrants are decent people who work hard, and support their families, and practice their faith, and lead responsible lives. Some willingly defend the flag, including two about to take the oath here today.
At its core, immigration is a sign of a confident and successful nation. It says something about our country that people all around the world are willing to leave their homes and leave their families and risk everything to come to our country. Their talent and hard work and love of freedom have helped us become the leader of the world.
Our generation must ensure that America remains a beacon of liberty and the most hopeful society the world has ever known. We must always be proud to welcome people as fellow Americans. Our new immigrants are just what they've always been -- people willing to risk everything for the dream of freedom.
America remains what she has always been: a great hope on the horizon, a blessed and promised land. We honor the heritage of all who come here, no matter where they come from, because we trust in our country's genius for making us all Americans -- one nation under God.
It's a joyful day for you all, and it's one you'll always remember. And so will I. In a few moments, we will share the same title -- a title that has meant more to me than any other, and I’ve had a lot -- that would be Citizen of the United States. I congratulate you and ask God’s blessings upon you.