George W. Bush’s kind words on immigration

File Photo: U.S. President George W. Bush speaks during a Veterans Day event at the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum November 11, 2008 in New York City.
File Photo: U.S. President George W. Bush speaks during a Veterans Day event at the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum November 11, 2008 in New York City.
John Angelillo-Pool/Getty Images/File

Former President George W. Bush is lending moral support to immigration reform efforts in Congress just as Republicans are on the cusp of deciding its fate.

“I think it’s very important to fix a broken system, to treat people with respect,” Bush told ABC News’ Jon Karl on Sunday. “And have confidence in our capacity to assimilate people. It’s a very difficult bill to pass because there is a lot of moving parts, and the legislative process can be ugly. But it looks like they’re making some progress.”

The 43rd president mostly did not delve into the details of the Senate’s recently passed immigration bill, but it’s broadly similar in structure (a path to citizenship, new border security measures, a crackdown on illegal hiring, a new worker visa program) to reforms Bush unsuccessfully encouraged Congress to enact from 2005-2007. Several of the lead Republican sponsors behind the Senate “Gang of Eight” bill, including Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Jeff Flake, worked on the Bush-era efforts as well.

On Wednesday, Bush will speak at a naturalization ceremony for new citizens and he’s expected to delve into the issue further. On the same day, House Republicans will meet with Speaker John Boehner to discuss the prospects for passing reform–prospects that supporters of the Senate bill fear are fading fast. 

Bush told ABC News that his inability to pass immigration reform, along with his failed Social Security overhaul, were two of the most frustrating battles of his second term.

“I thought the plan I had laid out on both was reasonable,” he said. “But sometimes it takes time for some of these complex issues to evolve. And looks like immigration, you know, has a chance to pass.”

The ex-president is a relevant figure in the debate on the political side as much as the policy. His 2004 re-election marked a high point for the party with Latino voters, with an estimated 40% pulling the lever for the GOP that year. Since then the party has swung to the right on immigration and their standing with Latino voters has cratered. The architect of Bush’s 2004 campaign, Karl Rove, is working hard this year to promote immigration reform within the GOP in the hopes of resetting relations with the community. Bush’s former commerce secretary and immigration adviser, Carlos Gutierrez, is leading a new group promoting the issue as well. They’re facing increasingly strong opposition from conservative commentators who argue that Latinos are unlikely to vote Republican in large numbers and that white voters may be more promising territory instead, despite their declining their share of the population.

Bush, for his part, cautioned against looking at the bill through a political lens.

“The reason to pass immigration reform is not to bolster a Republican Party, it’s to fix a system that’s broken,” he said. “Good policy yields good politics, as far as I’m concerned.”

George W. Bush's kind words on immigration