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.
Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., who served as a campaign and White House aide to Bush, said most House members agree with the points that Bush made "but now we have to get into the details of legislating and that's a different deal."
"I applaud him for not backing the Senate bill but look, we in the House represent our constituents who are very vocal on this issue, and I don't think it has any bearing one way or the other," Griffin said.
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 12 countries. One of the panels centered on how immigrants help drive the Texas economy.
Thomas reported from Washington.
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