The Washington Post

Bush’s call for GOP to embrace immigration reform seems to have little effect

Former president George W. Bush, who enjoyed healthy support among Latinos during his time in office, has broken a virtual five-year silence in national politics by calling on fellow Republicans to embrace immigration reform at a time when conservatives are rebelling against the idea.

The question is: Is anyone listening?

Judging from the immigration debate now roiling the House, probably not. Although Bush’s public approval ratings are on the rise, he is a fast-fading memory on Capitol Hill, where more than half of the 234 House Republicans arrived on the scene after he departed.

Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho), who last month dropped out of bipartisan talks to develop a comprehensive House immigration bill, said Bush’s views would have little impact.

“Anybody has to take an ex-president’s word seriously, but he’s just another voice on this issue. He’s not going to be the definitive voice,” Labrador said in an interview.

He added that House lawmakers “are all independent actors here. We’re not little kids waiting for someone to tell us how to vote and act.”

Bush has twice in the past two weeks delivered a gentle but clear message that his party should embrace an overhaul of border control laws for the good of the nation, without fear of recriminations from the party’s conservative base. Bush failed to persuade Congress to pass a similar reform package in 2007 — a setback that he has called one of his biggest disappointments as president.

“I do hope there is a positive resolution to the debate,” Bush said Wednesday at a naturalization ceremony for 20 people from 12 countries at his presidential library in Dallas. “And I hope during the debate that we keep a benevolent spirit in mind, and we understand the contributions immigrants make to our country. . . . At its core, immigration is a sign of a confident and successful nation.”

The 43rd president’s political reemergence, after choosing to remain out of the spotlight since leaving office in 2009, serves as a stark reminder of the political challenges facing the current GOP, whose support among Latino voters has plummeted since Bush won an estimated 44 percent of their vote in 2004. Eight years later, exit polls showed Republican nominee Mitt Romney winning just 29 percent of the fast-growing Latino electorate, leading to a round of anguished self-examination about the party’s future.

The Senate overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan bill last month that includes a path to citizenship for up to 11 million illegal immigrants. But House leaders said after a House GOP conference meeting Wednesday that they will not hold a vote on the Senate legislation, opting instead for a series of smaller bills that, so far, do not include a path to citizenship.

A spokesman for Bush said the timing of his Wednesday remarks was purely coincidental, as the ceremony was planned months ago, and that he is not planning any similar events in the near future. His brother, former Florida governor and potential 2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush (R), has been supporting immigration reform in a book and public speaking tour.

George W. Bush’s return to the national stage comes at a critical time for President Obama, who has made immigration reform his top second-term priority. After playing a supportive role during Senate negotiations, Obama is considering ramping up public pressure on the House through trips to key states to emphasize the benefits. On Wednesday, the White House released a report making an economic case for legalizing undocumented workers.

In 2007, during the last major attempt at immigration reform, a bipartisan Senate proposal supported by Bush failed to advance from that chamber. Many immigration supporters say Bush’s sway was limited by his declining popularity near the end of his tenure.

“We just didn’t have the time and influence to bring the party along,” Nicolle Wallace, Bush’s former communications director, said in an interview Wednesday.

Bush’s approval ratings have risen since leaving office — from 35 percent in 2009 to 49 percent this spring — as he settles into a role as an elder statesman. Several Republican lawmakers acknowledged this week that Bush’s experience in the immigration debate and ability to attract Hispanic support gives him special credibility on the issue.

But some said privately that they wish Bush had remained more active in GOP politics, as a fundraiser or campaign surrogate, which might have given him more clout on policy issues.

“I don’t think it hurts to have him coming out, but I’m not so sure how much it helps,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who has not been in touch with Bush since 2008.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said he wouldn’t be too concerned with the former president’s comments on immigration. But he added that “as a Republican who drew a high percentage of the Hispanic vote, there’s some lessons to be learned, and I think people would be interested in his point of view.”

One former Bush administration official who remains involved in the immigration policy debate on Capitol Hill said the former president “probably will not move the needle, other than the way in which he talks about it reminds people about why the issue is important and why there needs to be progress.”

Former Bush advisers said his position on immigration is a principled stance gained from his experience as a border governor in Texas from 1995 to 2000.

Wallace said the fact that her former boss has not spoken out on any other legislation since leaving office shows how passionate he is about immigration reform. She pointed to his Oval Office address to the country in May 2006.

“We are a nation of laws, and we must enforce our laws. We are also a nation of immigrants, and we must uphold that tradition, which has strengthened our country in so many ways,” Bush said at the time. “These are not contradictory goals.”

Wallace acknowledged that Bush is unlikely, by himself, to advance the cause in the Republican House. In recent weeks, pushback from constituents and conservative talk-radio hosts has made many House Republicans nervous about embracing a sweeping reform bill.

Former Bush administration Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who now heads a political action committee called Republicans for Immigration Reform, said Bush’s recent statements should be “a very powerful reminder to people that here is a Republican president who understands the importance of immigration.”

He added, “Surely the president’s voice has sway throughout the country and hopefully will make members of the House think twice about what they’re going to do.”

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.
Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
The Democrats debated Thursday night. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Chris Cillizza on the Democratic debate...
On Clinton: She poked a series of holes in Sanders's health-care proposal and broadly cast him as someone who talks a big game but simply can't hope to achieve his goals.

On Sanders: If the challenge was to show that he could be a candidate for people other than those who already love him, he didn't make much progress toward that goal. But he did come across as more well-versed on foreign policy than in debates past.
The PBS debate in 3 minutes
Quoted
We are in vigorous agreement here.
Hillary Clinton, during the PBS Democratic debate, a night in which she and Sanders shared many of the same positions on issues
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the polls as he faces rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz heading into the S.C. GOP primary on Feb. 20.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
Fact Checker
Trump’s claim that his border wall would cost $8 billion
The billionaire's claim is highly dubious. Based on the costs of the Israeli security barrier (which is mostly fence) and the cost of the relatively simple fence already along the U.S.-Mexico border, an $8 billion price tag is simply not credible.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read

politics

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.