Cecilia Ochoa Levine was a Mexican trying to make it in America. But when she hit upon a promising business opportunity, to make knapsacks south of the border to sell in the United States, she could not get the trade permits she needed.
And so Levine asked for help from a longtime friend in Texas, where she had been a legal resident for many years.
The friend was George W. Bush.
Within a week, Levine was on a plane to Washington for a meeting with trade officials. And soon after, she had the papers to expand her business, creating dozens of jobs at plants in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Not everyone would have been willing to use his influence to help a Mexican citizen start a company, particularly one creating jobs in Mexico as well as in the U.S. But Bush’s actions of 21 years ago help explain why today, as president, he is striking an unusually nuanced tone on the emotional question of immigration policy -- a stance that has placed him at odds with the conservative Republicans who have long formed the base of his political support.
“Here was this single mother, Mexican, no money, starting a tiny little business,” recalled Levine. She phoned Bush because his father was then vice president and “he was willing to use his connections in Washington to help me out. He understood it would mean jobs for poor people.”
Long before the immigration fight that is rattling the nation, Bush developed a picture of immigration from his life in Midland, where he knew Levine and other Mexican immigrants personally and came to see both sides of the border as part of the same universe.
A three-hour drive from Mexico, Midland did not have the feel of such border cities as El Paso, but it saw a wave of Mexican immigration long before many other communities across the South and the West. It is where Bush spent many of his childhood years and where he later returned to start an oil exploration business.
What Bush learned in Midland shaped his ability to appeal to Latino voters and foreshadowed what could be one of his most important legacies: helping the Republican Party compete for the nation’s fast-growing political constituency.
And it is having an impact now as Congress debates an overhaul of immigration law.
Conservatives are calling for tough enforcement measures to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and to penalize employers who hire illegal immigrants. Some are even calling for a massive fence to separate the two countries.
But Bush has carved out a more moderate approach. He sides with conservatives by calling for strict border enforcement and opposing what they call amnesty for millions of undocumented immigrants. Still, he supports a guest-worker program that would match foreigners with U.S. businesses and, as he said Friday, “bring people out of the shadows of American society so they don’t have to fear the life they live.”
Longtime residents of Midland say that Bush returned to the city of his childhood as the oil boom of the 1970s had begun to ebb, salaries were dropping and the workforce in the oil fields was shifting from white to Latino. Mexican immigrants were increasingly filling hard-labor jobs as drill operators and roughnecks.
Today, the city is more than 40% Latino.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand what Midland was going through back then,” said Jose Cuevas, who as a Midland newcomer in 1979 opened JumBurrito, a now-thriving chain of Mexican fast-food restaurants.
“In that kind of environment, everyone’s young, everyone’s excited. And if you’ve got your own oil company, when you go out where they’re drilling, the population was beginning to be Hispanic. You’d see they were hard-working, they’d be out there with their Mexican lunches made at home, and you’d be shoulder to shoulder with them learning how family oriented they are.”
There is no indication that Bush knowingly employed illegal immigrants at his oil company. Several people who worked directly with him said that he was consumed with hiring geologists and geophysicists to help find oil, and that rig workers were generally hired by subcontractors.
But friends and associates took early note of what they said was Bush’s unusual comfort level with Mexican culture. He and Laura, hankering for good Mexican food, stopped by regularly at Cecilia Ochoa Levine’s house for homemade flour tortillas, steak fajitas and other specialties. Levine’s husband at the time was a business partner of Bush’s.
“I made my own tortillas. I made him ceviche,” said Levine, who had come to the U.S. as a student in the 1960s and eventually married an American. “He would ride his bike over. He felt very comfortable in my home.”
After Levine divorced her husband and moved to El Paso, she kept in touch with the Bushes. And when a potential business partner offered to include her in a plan to produce knapsacks, using workers on both sides of the border, she asked Bush for help.
Levine’s ex-husband, Larry Wollschlager, placed the first business call to Bush, who had recently moved to Washington to begin working on his father’s presidential campaign. “He said, ‘I can only introduce you to the appropriate parties. I can’t pull strings,’ ” Wollschlager recalled.
Levine spoke further with Bush, and, within a week, secured her meeting at the Commerce Department.
“I was not a political person,” she said. “I had no money to contribute to his father’s campaign or anything. It all came from his understanding of what the border is, and I think he understands the border.” Today, Levine’s business is thriving and she is a U.S. citizen.
After Bush’s father won the 1988 campaign for president, Bush moved to Dallas and assembled a group that bought the Texas Rangers baseball team.
He spoke often with some of the team’s Latino players, such as Cuban-born Rafael Palmeiro. But perhaps more important, he hired as his personal assistant and driver Israel Hernandez, a University of Texas graduate raised in a border town.
For more than a year, Bush and Hernandez drove across the state, ostensibly promoting the Rangers but at the same time planting the early seeds of Bush’s 1994 candidacy for governor.
“We would be in the car and he would practice his Spanish,” said Hernandez, who continued working for Bush and later at the White House, under political strategist Karl Rove, guiding Latino outreach.
As he began to campaign formally, Bush made it a point to appear in the border towns and neighborhoods that had voted overwhelmingly for President Clinton, and which were expected to prove crucial in reelecting Gov. Ann Richards. He warmed his audiences with emotional speeches describing Latinos’ ability to overcome obstacles and their ambitions to pursue the American dream.
Some fellow conservatives were surprised to hear of his seemingly liberal views when it came to the border. Ernest Angelo, a petroleum engineer and mayor of Midland during the 1970s boom, brought up the issue when he encountered Bush at a political event, telling the future governor that he was concerned about the open border. Angelo suggested ending bilingual education in the U.S. to force greater assimilation.
But Bush didn’t agree. The two debated the issue for half an hour.
“He told me that was the wrong thing to do,” Angelo recalled. “I saw right then that he had a very deep-seated feeling that the immigration situation was beneficial to the country.”
After Bush was elected governor in 1994, it did not take long for his views on Hispanics and on immigration to mark him as different than many Republican colleagues.
In California, then-Gov. Pete Wilson championed Proposition 187 to deny public services to illegal immigrants. The initiative passed overwhelmingly amid rising public anger over the influx of Mexicans seeking jobs on farms and in other industries. The issue was credited with helping Wilson secure a resounding reelection, which put him in a prime spot to compete for the GOP presidential nomination.
But a scene that unfolded at a governors conference in Williamsburg, Va., left many political leaders stunned. Rather than applaud Wilson’s support of Proposition 187 as a deft move, Bush told Wilson to his face -- and in front of other governors -- that it was a disaster.
“He really minced no words,” recalled former Michigan Gov. John Engler, who witnessed the exchange. “He told Wilson, ‘You’re wrong,’ and that it was ... a catastrophic position. He was very clear. He felt that Wilson had made the issue one where it had become an anti-Hispanic issue rather than a solution to illegal immigration.”
Bush’s willingness as a rookie governor to confront Wilson “made a very powerful impression and an early impression on other governors,” Engler said.
The exchange was not covered by the media, and aides do not recall the details -- but Engler and Wilson remember it clearly. “I was disappointed,” Wilson said in a recent interview.
The then-Texas governor’s careful attention to the immigration issue did not stop with his election. As the 1996 presidential race began to unfold, Bush openly challenged Pat Buchanan, who was campaigning on an anti-immigration, anti-trade platform.
“No Cheap Shots at Mexico, Please,” was the headline of an August 1995 New York Times op-ed written by Bush. He cautioned that campaign “discussion on immigration and Mexico can turn ugly and destructive very quickly.”
“I don’t want anybody, any race, to be used as a political issue,” Bush said at a news conference, timed to answer a Buchanan appearance in Texas.
By 1998, Bush proved that a Republican could put the Latino vote in play, winning about 50% of that constituency in Texas as he was reelected governor by a landslide. Among his supporters was Adela Gonzalez, who with about a dozen friends formed the group Amigas de Bush. A housekeeper in El Paso, Gonzalez said she became a U.S. citizen about 10 years ago.
As governor, Bush rarely faced substantive policy questions related to immigration. But one issue showed that, despite his personal ties to Latinos and immigrants, he also viewed immigration through the lens of politics.
Over the objections of some conservatives, the Texas Legislature restored healthcare benefits to thousands of children of noncitizens who were to be cut off after changes to federal welfare law.
The measure reached Bush’s desk as he was planning his 2000 campaign for president and facing a competitive primary. Bush viewed the legislation with caution, hedging until the last minute on whether he would sign.
Texas state Rep. Garnet Coleman, the Houston Democrat who sponsored the provision, recalled a 1999 conversation in which Bush’s lobbyist acknowledged the political pressure Bush was feeling from Buchanan, who was running again for president and focusing on security at the border.
“He said, ‘We can’t let Pat Buchanan outdo us on the right,’ ” Coleman said. “They were very afraid of Buchanan. They didn’t want to have a record that was too to the middle, because it would hurt them in the primaries.
“I thought ... ‘Do we have to screw up Texas for that?’ ” Coleman said.
In the end, Bush signed the legislation.
Coleman credits Bush for taking on Wilson on Proposition 187, but says Bush’s stance today seems more about keeping low-wage labor available to industry. “I think he’s doing it out of interest in keeping cost of production low for his friends,” he said. “It’s pure economics.”
Bush went on to make personalized outreach to Latinos a trademark of both of his presidential campaigns. And it paid dividends with voters who had long leaned Democratic.
Bush won 40% of Latinos in 2004 -- compared with the 21% GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole won in 1996, after the passage of Proposition 187.
During the 2000 election, Bush previewed a campaign video from ad-maker Lionel Sosa that used emotion-laden themes to woo Latinos.
As he watched, Sosa recalled, Bush’s face lighted up. “How much do you need for this?” Bush asked as the two men sat with Rove in the governor’s mansion in Texas, Sosa said.
Sosa replied that it would take $3 million. According to the ad-maker, Bush then turned to Rove, saying: “Give him five.”
Four years later, Sosa produced a variation of that video for the 2004 campaign that was mailed to Latino voters across the country.
The video includes images that would probably rile those who today are calling for the most restrictive immigration laws. At one point, Bush is shown waving a Mexican flag. The footage was shot, Sosa said, during a Mexican Independence Day parade in San Antonio in 1998, when Bush was running for reelection as governor.
The five-minute video, narrated by Bush, opens with an image of him fishing on his property near Crawford, Texas, as he essentially described millions of Americans who populate his home state as the true foreigners in someone else’s native land.
“About 15 years before the Civil War, much of the American West was northern Mexico,” Bush says in the video. “The people who lived there weren’t called Latinos or Hispanics. They were Mexican citizens, until all that land became part of the United States.
“After that, many of them were treated as foreigners in their own land,” Bush adds.
He says the “Latino spirit” was fueled by “strong conservative values” of family, a strong work ethic, faith in God, patriotism and personal responsibility. “These values are my values,” Bush says. “I live by them, and I lead by them.”
As Bush speaks in the video, the background music -- a Latin beat -- grows louder. The president is pictured waving the Mexican flag, hugging a Latino woman, and then holding a Latino baby.
Political strategists in both parties said the video illustrated how Bush, unlike other Republicans, had forged a personal relationship with Latino voters largely on his ability to convey empathy and invite them into his party.
The appeal is most effective with those newer immigrants who maintained closer ties to home, a group that by 2004 made up nearly half of the Latino vote across the country. “These are people who want to belong here,” said Joe Garcia, a strategist for the New Democrat Network, a centrist Democratic group. “The biggest compliment is to tell these folks, ‘You’re one of us.’ ”
That was the way Cecilia Ochoa Levine felt when she phoned Bush in 1985.
“He was concerned about how my family was doing,” she said.
Now, Levine runs her company, MFI International Manufacturing, with her husband, employing hundreds of people in plants in El Paso and across the border in Juarez.
She said Bush understood the nature of border cities in Texas, where their Mexican counterparts are essentially pieces of the same community. Now, Levine said, she can drive from her home in El Paso to her plant in Juarez in half the time it takes her to get from home to the plant in El Paso.
“It’s not like we’re two communities. We’re one region,” she said. “People in other places don’t realize that.”
Times staff writer Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.