DALLAS — During his opening remarks Tuesday at a daylong conference on immigration and the economy, former President George W. Bush urged the nation’s leaders to debate immigration reform with compassion and kindness.
In a brief appearance at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Bush did not advocate for a specific solution. But his statements indicated he supports policies similar to those he championed during his presidency, when immigration reform was last debated in Congress.
“America can become a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time,” Bush said at the event, which was organized by the George W. Bush Institute and the Federal Reserve Bank. “As our nation debates the proper course of action on immigration reform, I hope we do so with a benevolent spirit and keep in mind the contributions of immigrants.”
Those contributions include “new skills and new ideas,” he said, adding that immigrants “fill a critical gap in our labor market.
“Not only do immigrants help build the economy, they invigorate our soul,” he said at the gathering of students, scholars and economists.
Bush did not take questions following his remarks. But his introduction appeared to set the tone for the panelists, whose focus was more on reform and its potential boon to the economy and less on law enforcement and border security.
Analysts said after last month’s general election that Republicans, including those who espoused hard-line views on illegal immigration, should recognize the growing voting power of the country’s minority population, including Hispanics who champion immigration reform, and find a solution.
Clint Bolick, a lawyer and the director of the Goldwater Institute's Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, warned of what he said were poorly thought-out schemes by state legislatures to fix immigration within their own borders. If the trend persisted, he added, the problem would be too few immigrants to perform low-wage labor as opposed to too many.
“Alabama tried a nifty way” to address immigration with a disastrous result to the state’s GDP, he said, referring to the state’s recently passed bill that allows law officers to check immigration status. Portions of the bill are currently unenforceable and tied up in federal courts but the state’s agriculture economy suffered resounding labor losses after the bill was signed.
As far as immigrant youths, the focus of President Obama’s deferred action policies that grants legal status and a reprieve from deportation to certain younger undocumented immigrants, Bolick said the country needed to move more quickly than the DREAM Act. That legislation would provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented youths who meet certain guidelines. Bolick said the immigrants, who he said are American for all intents and purposes, should be given citizenship sooner than what the proposed legislation would allow.
Last week, outgoing U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, introduced the Achieve Act, which would create a new visa for undocumented youths who attend college or serve in the military to receive legal status and a work permit. It does not, however, allow for a pathway to citizenship.
At its conference last weekend United We Dream, an immigrants’ rights group whose affiliates include the University Leadership Initiative based at the University of Texas at Austin, reiterated its demand for Congress to pass the DREAM Act. The group also decided to push for reform beyond the DREAM Act.
“The DREAMers are leaders within their communities and their families. They know firsthand the sacrifices their parents made to provide opportunities for their children,” Lynn Tramonte, the deputy director for the progressive America’s Voice Educational Fund, said in a prepared statement. “They are incredible spokespeople for their families, and will once again transform the immigration debate."
According to a fact sheet released by the Bush Institute, immigrants accounted for more than half of the country’s labor-force growth from 2003 to 2012. Of the 8.4 million new workers, 4.4 million were immigrants. The center also said that in 2011, 11 percent of the country’s immigrants earned a graduate or professional degree, 1 percentage point higher than the country’s native-born residents.