Bush backs immigration overhaul, but may not sway GOP lawmakers

WASHINGTON — When House Republicans file into the Capitol on Monday to start thrashing out a response to the Senate’s landmark immigration bill, former President George W. Bush will be presiding over a ceremony for new U.S. citizens at his newly minted library in Dallas.

In a keynote address to mark the center’s first major policy event, Bush will argue that overhauling the nation’s immigration laws will be good for the country. A panel discussion titled “What Immigrants Contribute” will follow.

It is unclear, however, whether the former two-term president will help the bill’s prospects in what appears an uphill fight in the Republican-controlled House.

Bush is not necessarily a role model for the new generation of Republican lawmakers. Many lean more to the right and reject a basic tenet of immigration reform — a long-term path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally — in a package with tougher border security and guest-worker programs.


Moreover, House conservatives who were swept into office in the tea party surge are suspicious of the GOP’s Bush-era leaders, whom they blame for running up fiscal deficits and compromising conservative values.

Although Bush’s support can’t hurt, House Republicans “are not going to pay too much attention” to the former president, his brother and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and other Republicans who support reform, said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, an advocacy group. “It’s not going to make the difference with conservative Republicans who hold the key to immigration reform in the House.”

Whether rank-and-file Republicans ultimately approve an immigration bill that President Obama will sign may depend on which wing of the GOP prevails in an internecine battle that will play out over the next several months.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has billed next week’s Republican session in the Capitol basement as a freewheeling discussion on the legislative path forward without “any predictions on what the outcome of that conversation’s going to be.”


The conversation is likely to be lively. The more conservative flank rejects what it derides as “amnesty” for immigrants, while a reemerging moderate wing will attempt to shore up support for prominent Republicans at the forefront of the debate.

“We’re never going to win the ‘Hell no!’ caucus,” said one pro-reform Republican strategist. “But there’s a large majority that could support reform and is either inclined to or undecided, and that’s where our efforts are most focused.”

The feud has left Republicans without a cohesive national message on immigration reform just as party leaders want to appeal to Latino voters who abandoned the party in the last two presidential elections.

Bush’s pro-reform speech coincides with new TV ads and increased advocacy by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, evangelical pastors and other groups seeking to press House members to embrace the bill over the next three months. The strategy is to give political cover to Republicans facing right-flank attacks.


Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff will tell conservatives next week in Houston, for example, that immigration reform is important for national security.

“There’s been a lot of misinformation throughout the debate and we believe it’s important Floridians know that this bill helps provide the tough border security America needs,” Brian O. Walsh, president of the GOP-aligned American Action Network, said in announcing an ad campaign supporting the state’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a chief architect of the Senate bill. “We look forward to continuing our efforts to support reform as the debate shifts to the U.S. House of Representatives.”

But other considerations may prove more important to some House Republicans. Many represent districts with few minority voters, and they worry about a primary challenge from the right if they are not seen as being tough on illegal immigration.

They may be targeted by conservative groups, including Heritage Action for America, that oppose the immigration overhaul as a drain on federal resources that takes away jobs from Americans.


Key conservative players who could lend support, including the influential Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity, have decided to sit out this debate, their officials said.

Bush, who served as governor of Texas before winning the White House, led a full court press on Congress to pass immigration reform in 2007, but the bill was defeated.

He won reelection in 2004 with 44% of the Latino vote. The party’s nominee last year, Mitt Romney, won only 27% of the Latino vote.