Dallas, Tex. – After a long public silence on immigration, former President George W. Bush praised immigrants Tuesday as critical to the U.S. labor market and appealed for the country to be welcoming of them.
The former president delivered a short opening speech on immigrants and the economy at a symposium the George W. Bush Presidential Center hosted on immigration and economic growth.
“They come with new skills and new ideas,” Bush said. “America’s a nation of immigrants, immigrants have helped build the country that we’ve become. Not only do immigrants help build the economy, they invigorate our souls.”
Bush made no mention about immigration status when he spoke of immigrants.
The closest he came to touching on the subject of illegal immigration was acknowledging the current national debate on the issue, and urging those engaging in discussions to “do so with a benevolent spirit and keep in mind the contributions.”
“Immigrants fill a critical gap in our labor market, and they work hard for a chance at a better life.” He went on to say that “America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time."
As president, Bush held many moderate views on immigration, frequently stressing that he was against “amnesty,” but at the same expressing support for ways to provide a pathway to legalization for certain undocumented immigrants.
He made a vigorous push for comprehensive immigration reform, working the phones in 2007 to press the leadership of his own party as well as the Democrats to get behind a measure that would have stepped up enforcement as well as provide a pathway to legalization for immigrants who met a strict set of criteria.
Bush said it was neither humane nor realistic to expect that all 12 million undocumented immigrants could be deported.
“Some in this country argue that the solution is to deport every illegal immigrant, and that any proposal short of this amounts to amnesty. I disagree,” Bush said when he was president. “It is neither wise, nor realistic to round up millions of people, many with deep roots in the United States, and send them across the border.”
But despite bipartisan support, the reform package Bush pushed in 2007 failed to pass Congress.
Bush stayed out of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s campaign to become president. The governor, and Republicans stomping for him, frequently brought up former President Ronald Reagan when on the campaign trail, but rarely Bush, the mention of whom some in the party feared would conjure images of the economic problems that President Obama and his campaign blamed on him.
Romney adopted a tone on immigration that was completely opposite that of Bush, often taking a hard line on the matter of undocumented immigrants and saying he opposed efforts to give them a break and let them legalize.
In polls, many Hispanics said they found the way Romney addressed immigration as hostile and anti-Hispanic. That view among Hispanics was seen as a key factor in their record turnout on Election Day and their overwhelming support for Obama.
As he left office, Bush warned the Republican Party not to become "anti-immigrant."
Former Bush officials – and the former president’s own brother, Jeb Bush, who had been governor of Florida -- often lamented this year how the GOP’s rhetoric on immigration had drifted so far from the one that Bush and Reagan had employed. Bush received about 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004.
Bush was seen as more understanding than most about immigration and Latinos because of his Texas roots. He raised that connection on Tuesday.
“Growing up here in Texas, like many in this room, I had the honor and privilege of meeting the newly arrived,” Bush said. “Those who I’ve met love their families. They see education as a bright future for their children. Some willingly defend the flag.”
The daylong conference, co-hosted with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, is featuring experts in immigration and the economy, among other things.
This story contains material from The Associated Press.
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.