George W Bush Urges Congress to Find a "Positive Resolution" on Immigration
George W Bush dipped a toe into the turbulent waters of the immigration debate on Wednesday when he urged Congress to find a "positive resolution" to a problem that proved to be resistant to change during his presidency.
The 43rd incumbent of the White House used a naturalization ceremony at his recently-opened presidential center in Dallas, Texas as a stage from which to make a rare entry to the current political debate. Since he stepped down from office on 20 January 2009, Bush has kept a scrupulously low profile at home in Dallas and at the family ranch in Crawford.
But with the highly partisan battle over comprehensive immigration reform reaching a crucial state in the House of Representatives, Bush told the 20 newly-naturalized US citizens in front of him: "The laws governing the immigration system aren't working. The system is broken. We are now in an important debate on reforming those laws, and that's good."
Bush said he had no intention to "get involved in the politics or the specifics of policy". But he added: "I do hope there is a positive resolution to the debate, and I hope during the debate we keep a benevolent spirit in mind and that we understand the contributions immigrants make to our country.
"We are a nation of immigrants and we must uphold that tradition which has strengthened our country in so many ways."
The Bush comments could not have come at a more critical moment within the tortuous immigration debate. House Republicans began meeting on Wednesday about how to find a way forward in the heated dispute, having roundly rejected a Senate bill that passed last month.
The Senate version would offer the 11 million mainly Latino migrants in the US without documentation a pathway to citizenship, but only after 13 years, and on the proviso that the border with Mexico has been substantially secured by then. The reforms envisage a "border surge" of patrol officers and high-tech gadgetry that would cost a total of $46bn.
But Republican leaders in the House have expressed dissatisfaction with the Senate bill, and are proposing their own iteration that may involve splitting up the reforms into individual parcels, beginning with border security. House speaker John Boehner has bluntly stated that he will not allow the Senate bill to be considered on the floor of his chamber.
The fractious relations between parties, and between chambers, must appear all too familiar to Bush, whose own attempt at bringing millions of undocumented migrants out of the shadows collapsed in 2007. His plan had contained similar elements of increased border security and a pathway to citizenship, but came unstuck after members of his own party described the pathway as a form of "amnesty" for illegal behaviour.
Bush paid lip service to the enduring political rifts over immigration in his speech on Wednesday, but implied there was a way of bridging the gap. "We can uphold our traditions of assimilating immigrants and honouring our heritage of a nation built on the rule of law. America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time," he said.
The search for a solution to the US immigration conundrum has provided a rare element of ideological consistency between Bush and his successor in the White House. President Obama praised his predecessor at the inauguration of the Bush presidential center in April for having "restarted an important conversation by speaking with the American people about our history as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants".
Just how much weight Bush's intervention will make with the House Republicans who hold the key to this issue is a moot point. Bush is not wildly loved by members of his own party, who blame him for having presided over growth in public spending and for having instigated the unpopular war in Iraq.
But Bush's approval ratings have just reached a seven-year high, at 47%, according to a Washington Post poll. Fellow Republicans are also increasingly coming round to his point of view that by showing hostility towards Hispanic immigrant groups the party is condemning itself to the political wildnerness.
In the 2012 presidential election, Obama was backed by an overwhelming 71% of the Latino vote to Mitt Romney's 27%. The Latino vote is steadily rising, making up 10% of the electorate last November, compared with 9% in 2008 and 8% in 2004.