Sidelined By War, Bush Also Sought Immigration Reform

There is growing momentum for rewriting the nation's immigration laws. President Obama brought the issue to center stage last week with ideas similar those pushed by President George W. Bush early in his first term. But back then, Sept. 11 happened and pushed the issue to the back burner.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Immigration reform took center stage this week in Washington, D.C. President Obama embraced it and a bipartisan group of eight senators offered a plan to strengthen border security and provide a path to citizenship with the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. The last major effort to rewrite the nation's immigration laws was in 2007 under President George W. Bush.

NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea looks back at what went wrong.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: President Obama did something unusual in his speech on immigration this week. He mentioned his predecessor, and in a laudatory way.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 'Cause the ideas I'm proposing have traditionally been supported by both Democrats like Ted Kennedy and Republicans like President George W. Bush. You don't get that match-up very often.

GONYEA: George W. Bush did make immigration a top priority. Louis DeSipio is a professor of Chicano-Latino studies at the University of California, Irvine.

LOUIS DESIPIO: One of the ways that he distinguished himself in the 2000 Republican primaries was to speak of the need to incorporate immigrants.

GONYEA: Karen Hughes was an adviser to Bush as president and as governor.

KAREN HUGHES: Growing up in Texas, President Bush understood those emotions. And he also understood that our economy needs these workers.

GONYEA: President Bush's very first state dinner was in honor of Mexico's president, Vicente Fox. Here is Bush at a news conference that day.

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PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I know there are some in this world, in our country who want to build walls between Mexico and the United States. I want to remind people fearful people build walls, confident people tear them down.

GONYEA: His words recognize the obstacles the issue faced. Enhanced border security was popular but not a guest worker program and not the prospect of citizenship for illegal residents. Still, Bush was ready to try. Then, just days after that state dinner came the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Again, Karen Hughes.

HUGHES: Well, obviously after 9/11, the first priority began protecting our homeland from any sort of additional attacks. And that created a climate of suspicion, of concern - logically and naturally - and that had to be the first priority. So, in some ways, it pushed the issue of immigration reform to the sidelines until the second term.

GONYEA: Immigration did reemerge in 2006. There were protests across the country when Congress took up a measure labeling illegal immigrants as felons. President Bush responded with a primetime Oval Office address.

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BUSH: We're a nation of laws and we must enforce our laws. We're also a nation of immigrants and we must uphold that tradition which has strengthened our country in so many ways. These are not contradictory goals. America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time.

GONYEA: There was some bipartisan support for the president's approach in the U.S. Senate. But at the time, conservative forces were too strong in the U.S. House. Bush tried again in 2007, but there still weren't enough votes to overcome the filibuster threshold. Again, Louis DeSipio.

DESIPIO: I think it fell apart because Republican members of the House and Senate realized they could face primary challenges for supporting a compromised bill on immigration.

GONYEA: As he left office, Bush lamented the failure on immigration and worried about the impact on his party.

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BUSH: And, you know, if the image is we don't like immigrants, then there's probably somebody else out there saying, well, if they don't like immigrants, they probably don't like me as well.

GONYEA: Thereafter, much of the Republican rhetoric only got tougher. In 2012, more than 70 percent of Latino voters went for President Obama. It was a harsh lesson, but at least some Republicans seem to have taken it to heart. That is why six years after his last try, bipartisan support is back for the kind of immigration changes President George W. Bush hoped for.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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