DALLAS - As the U.S. debates immigration policy, former President George W. Bush says it should "do so with a benevolent spirit and keep in mind the contribution of immigrants."
"Immigrants have helped build the country that we've become and immigrants can help build a dynamic tomorrow," Bush said Tuesday as he opened a conference on the benefits of immigration hosted by the George W. Bush Institute and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
The conference comes as immigration reform is getting renewed attention following an election in which Hispanics overwhelmingly supported Democratic President Barack Obama. Bush has long been concerned about immigration and had warned the Republican Party as he left office in January 2009 not to become "anti-immigrant."
Former President George W. Bush gives opening remarks at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas for a conference titled 'Immigration and 4% Growth: How Immigrants grow the U.S. Economy,' Tuesday, in Dallas. The George W. Bush Institute is hosting panel discussions highlighting the positive impact of immigration on U.S. economic growth.
"America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time," Bush said Tuesday.
One of the Bush Institute's focuses is economic growth, and the conference is part of an institute initiative to find ways for the U.S. to achieve 4 percent gross domestic product growth. For the most recent quarter, the country's GDP grew at 2.7 percent.
Bush said immigrants come with "new skills and new ideas" and "fill a critical gap in our labor market."
Following Bush's remarks, the conference featured panels with business leaders and economic experts on both the immigrants' contributions to economic growth and their contributions to businesses.
A handbook on growth and immigration by the institute notes immigrants are more likely than people born in the U.S. to be self-employed and are disproportionally responsible for U.S. international patent applications and for starting successful engineering and technology firms.
Immigration reform is expected to be taken up by Congress starting next year.
Bush's own promised overhaul of immigration policy in his second term was defeated in Congress when leading lawmakers, including fellow Republicans, thought provisions such as a guest worker program amounted to amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Michelle Mittelstadt, spokeswoman for the Migration Policy Institute, said it's significant that Bush is speaking about the issue at a time when "there's a lot of soul-searching in the Republican Party about what sort of policy decisions it should be taking on immigration."