By Ken Herman
DALLAS - Five years after his own party killed his immigration reform plan - and a month after a crushing election defeat that has some in that party rethinking the issue - former President George W. Bush delicately but definitely reentered the fray.
He's hoping it goes better this time. So should everyone who realizes the status quo on immigration is not viable. There seems to be growing consensus on that, but the jury's out on exactly what should be done.
That's why the George W. Bush Institute convened this week's conference on immigration and economic growth. The two are irrevocably linked, said speaker after speaker. This was not a two-sided forum: It sought to make the case that immigrants boost the economy.
About 150 invited guests attended the event at the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank. Bush himself advocated nothing specific, but he made a rare foray in front of the TV cameras.
"Immigrants come with new skills and new ideas," he said. "They fill a critical gap in our labor market. They work hard for a chance for a better life. ... Not only do immigrants help build our economy; they invigorate our souls."
Bush ended with a nod to the controversy surrounding the topic: "America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time. As our nation debates the proper course of action relating to immigration, I hope we do so with a benevolent spirit and keep in mind the contribution of immigrants."
The conference was in the works before Mitt Romney's loss, which was attributed partly to his failure to draw Hispanic support. During the primaries, Romney curried favor with some Republicans by blasting Texas Gov. Rick Perry's support for in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants. He also issued his now-famous call for "self-deportation."
As president, Bush proposed immigration reforms that included more border enforcement, but he upset some Republicans by supporting a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants willing to pay fines. The plan died in 2007 due to lack of GOP support in the Senate.
Bush spoke for six minutes at the conference and left before the panel discussions began. It was a rare appearance before the press for him. Since leaving office, he has kept his word to keep a low profile. He plays golf, makes paid speeches, and is working on the scheduled opening of the George W. Bush Center at Southern Methodist University in April.
Those who see politics behind everything might note that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Bush's brother and a potential 2016 presidential contender, is a Bush Institute board member. And one of the panel members was Clint Bolick of the Goldwater Institute, a coauthor with Jeb Bush of the forthcoming Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution.
"It appears that after the 2012 election, we have that rare historical moment when Democrats and Republicans may be willing to come together not just to put another Band-Aid on the issue, but to fix it fundamentally," Bolick said. He called for a legalization (not citizenship) program for illegal immigrants. It's "crazy," he said, "to send these people packing when they've become true Americans."
And Bolick called for something more profound than making foreign-born children of illegal immigrants eligible for in-state college tuition. "We can go further ... and give these kids, who are Americans in every sense of the word, citizenship in a very, very quick manner," he said.
It's a long way to 2016, and George W. Bush's continuing interest in immigration reform is no surprise. But could his reemergence bolster another Bush's presidential candidacy?