WASHINGTON -- Just hours ahead of a critical meeting on immigration reform efforts in Congress—in which House Republicans will stake out their position on the issue—former President George W. Bush on Wednesday cautiously waded back into political waters by stressing that the current immigration system in America is “broken.”
“The laws governing the immigration system aren’t working,” Mr. Bush said at a naturalization ceremony at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas. The ceremony was the first public event at the newly-opened institute, underscoring the former president’s interest in immigration.
“We’re a nation of immigrants... we’re also a nation of laws, and we must enforce our laws,” Mr. Bush said. “America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time. We can uphold our tradition of assimilating immigrants... but we have a problem.”
Mr. Bush urged lawmakers currently engaged in the immigration reform debate to “keep a benevolent spirit in mind, and... understand the contributions immigrants make to our country.”
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It’s unlikely House Republicans—who have more to gain politically by satisfying primary voters in the next two years than by contributing to the GOP’s long term prospects with Hispanic voters—will give much credence to Mr. Bush’s message. The most conservative members in the House GOP caucus have zero interest in creating a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants—which is a major part of the comprehensive bill that passed in the Senate.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, told CBS News’ Nancy Cordes on “CBS This Morning” that Congress has “no moral obligation to do that. They came here to live in the shadows, they had to expect they were going to live in the shadows.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has already indicated he doesn’t plan to put the Senate bill up for a vote. House Republicans have said they’d prefer to take an incremental approach to the issue rather than passing a big, comprehensive package. Furthermore, they say any immigration reform effort must address border security first.
Wednesday’s House GOP meeting will open with remarks from Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who will discuss the standalone immigration bills he has drafted as chair of the House Judiciary Committee. His bills would make being an illegal immigrant in the United States a federal crime and empower local law enforcement to enforce immigration laws, reform and expand the agricultural worker visa program and another to require all employers to check the legal status of employees.
Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, will then review his bill, which passed out of the Homeland Security Committee, that would beef up border security. The meeting will then open up for questions and comments from other GOP members.
Some House Republicans—like Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.—have been trying to work with House Democrats for years on the issue. Diaz-Balart told Cordes on “CBS This Morning” that he believes many of his fellow Republicans could support some kind of conditional legal status for undocumented immigrants.
“It is clear we have a system that’s broken,” he said. “In Washington, we’re supposed to come up here to fix problems that are broken.”
Still, many in the GOP contend the Senate bill wouldn’t fix the problem. They’re skeptical new border enforcement measures would be enforced and are concerned that creating a pathway to citizenship would only encourage more people to immigrate to America illegally.
Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative magazine the National Review, said on “CBS This Morning” that the Senate bill is “deeply flawed” and not worth passing.
The White House on Wednesday released a report stressing the economic benefits of immigration reform, and Lowry acknowledged thare are “small economic benefits.”
Still, he called the bill a “huge mistake”—even for Republicans interested in building up political support with Hispanics.
“The idea you have to pass this particular bill at this particular moment or you’re never going to win any Latino voters again I think is just silly,” he said.
Republicans could take a cue from Mr. Bush if they do want to shore up Latino support. Among Republican presidential candidates in the past four decades, Mr. Bush had the strongest showing with Hispanic voters, winning 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. By comparison, Mitt Romney won 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012.
Now that his presidential center is open, Mr. Bush has more of a platform to shape a post-presidency agenda. While he has largely stayed out of the limelight, he has made some policy-related appearances, such as his recent trip to Africa to promote women’s health and economic issues on the continent.
The former president, however, has said more than once that he has no interest in re-entering the world of politics—something he reiterated on Wednesday.
“We’re now in an important debate” on immigration reform, he said. “I don’t intend to get involved in the politics or the specifics of policy, but I do hope there is a positive resolution to the debate.”