The GOP should embrace George W. Bush … on immigration.
Just as Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus’s spoke of a “real urgency of connecting with minority communities,” Republican officials went back to alienating Hispanics.
In Arizona, Sen. John McCain defended using the term “illegal immigrants,” which many Latinos find offensive. And up in Alaska, Rep. Don Young talked about growing up on a farm where “we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes.” He later explained: “I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays, and I meant no disrespect.”
Among the GOP base, just a third polled think that immigrants “strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents.” Jeb Bush, the Republican who’s supposed to know how to handle the issue, has flip-flopped on his flip-flop on immigration. When you combine those postures and numbers, the 27% of the Hispanic vote Mitt Romney got in 2012 is looking better in retrospect.
To repair their standing with Hispanics, Republicans would be wise to embrace the legacy of He Who Must Not Be Named: George W. Bush, who got 44% of the Hispanic vote in 2004.
It’s more than a little heartbreaking to realize how close we came to reforming immigration under Bush. In Sept. 2001, he invited “my friend” Vicente Fox, the newly elected Mexican president, to address a joint session of Congress. The way Bush spoke about immigration reform reads like a rebuke to contemporary Republicans.
“This administration and I know many members of Congress are committed to treating Mexicans with respect when they come to our country, that we want them to be treated like you’d want any neighbor to be treated,” the former president said.
One week later came 9/11. Bush misled us into the Iraq War and then mismanaged our way through it. But—and it’s hard to remember the good through the bitter memories—he kept pushing immigration reform.
In the East Room on Jan. 7, 2004, Bush was still polling favorably, 55%-37% according to NBC. Surrounded by much of his Cabinet and rolling his R’s when introducing Hispanic leaders, Bush called immigrants (or “Americans by choice”) “one of the defining strengths of America” and said providing a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants “will make America a more compassionate, more humane and stronger country.”
What’s striking almost a decade later is how Bush spoke to the feelings of Mexicans who illegally crossed our border while linking their plight to our economic interests.
“As a nation that values immigration and depends on immigration, we should have immigration laws that work and make us proud. Yet today, we do not,” said Bush. “We see millions of hard-working men and women condemned to fear and insecurity in a massive undocumented economy. … The system does not work. Our nation needs an immigration system that serves the American economy and reflects the American dream.”
After Bush won re-election, McCain and Ted Kennedy sponsored an immigration reform bill that embodied Bush’s proposals. That bill died in committee amid massive pro-immigration rallies and a more abiding backlash that now characterizes the Republican mindset. Compromise legislation eventually died in the Senate in Jun. 2007, and Bush’s remarks delivered at the Naval War College are notable for their terse, almost resentful tone.
“The American people understand the status quo is unacceptable when it comes it comes to our immigration laws. A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn’t find a common ground. It didn’t work,” he said before walking away without taking questions.
The Bush immigration doctrine has become a hot stove for Republicans. In a Sept. 2011 Republican presidential debate, Rick Perry was booed for saying critics of a law he signed giving non-citizens in-state college tuition “don’t … have a heart.” Romney won the nomination but arguably lost the war when he said he would make things so tough on unauthorized immigrants that they would “self-deport.”
We can mock Bush for wasting his retirement painting pictures of dogs, but if Republicans ever want to get Hispanics to vote for them again, they would be wise to embrace his record on immigration.