Former president George W. Bush is wading into the debate over immigration reform, using a speech in Dallas to praise immigrants and ask that the issue be approached with a "benevolent spirit." 

Bush, who tried and failed to pass comprehensive reform as president, opened a day-long conference on immigration and economic growth organized by the George W. Bush Institute, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Economists, CEOs and policy experts are speaking at the invitation-only event. 

"Immigrants come with new skills and new ideas. They fill a critical gap in our labor market. They work hard for a chance for a better life," Bush said. "Not only do immigrants help build our economy, they invigorate our soul. America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time."

The former president did not offer any specific policy initiatives. Instead, he asked politicians dealing with the issue "to do so with a benevolent spirit and keep in mind the contribution of immigrants."

Bush's reform efforts were stymied by Republicans in Congress. He later told the Washington Times that if he could do one thing over, he would push immigration reform in the wake of the 2004 election instead of focusing on a failed Social Security overhaul. 

Now, in the wake of a bruising election, Republicans increasingly agree that the party's hard line on immigration is politically untenable

Three influential Republican senators recently introduced legislation that would grant legal residency to young people brought illegally to the United States, if they seek higher education or enlist in the military. And pro-immigration conservative activists have descended on D.C. this week to pressure key Republicans to support reform.