Time to listen to George W. Bush

Considering how far former President George W. Bush has stayed from politics since he left office in 2009, it's worth taking note of his decision this week to speak out in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. The issue is certainly not new for Mr. Bush — he has long been an advocate on the issue and counts his failure to enact a bill in 2007 as one of the great disappointments of his presidency. But what is particularly notable is the way he framed his remarks at a naturalization ceremony held Wednesday at his presidential center in Dallas.

There has been much talk since November's election about the peril the Republican Party faces if it continues to lose the Hispanic and Asian votes by lopsided margins, as Mitt Romney did in 2012 and Sen. John McCain did four years before. Though there are likely many reasons why these fast-growing groups voted the way they did, many Republican leaders have latched onto immigration reform as a make-or-break issue for the party.

But that theoretically compelling, if uninspiring, rationale for Republicans to support reform was altogether absent from Mr. Bush's remarks. Instead, in a refreshing break from the general tone of American politics these days, he argued the point on merits and morality: "The system is broken. We're now in an important debate in reforming those laws, and that's good. ... I do hope there is a positive resolution to the debate, and I hope during the debate that we keep a benevolent spirit in mind, and we understand the contributions immigrants make to our country. ... At its core, immigration is a sign of a confident and successful nation."

On that point, the American people appear to agree. A Gallup poll released this week found that 63 percent of Americans think the level of immigration to the country should stay the same or increase, with just 35 percent saying it should be reduced, the most pro-immigrant result the company has found since it started asking that question in 1999. Seventy-two percent said they believe immigration is good for the country, also a high-water mark in Gallup polling.

But that change in opinions does not appear to extend to the House Republican caucus, which met Wednesday to discuss how it should respond to the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate with a large, bi-partisan majority. That bill includes billions to augment border security but also sets up a path for those who are in the country illegally to eventually become citizens. But after Wednesday's meeting, House Speaker John Boehner said his caucus wants to address immigration piecemeal. Most likely border security and citizenship verification for employers would come first and legal status for undocumented immigrants later.

Realistically, that means never. Mr. Boehner reportedly reached out to House Democratic leaders today to see if they would be interested in tackling immigration reform as a series of discrete bills, but they would be foolish to take him up on the idea. Given the attitudes among Republican House members and Mr. Boehner's insistence that any bills that come to the floor have majority support in his caucus, that's a recipe for passing border security and nothing more. The only way a bi-partisan coalition holds together is by addressing all parts of the issue at the same time. But too many Republicans, particularly in the House, seem simply to want the 11 million people in this country illegally to disappear. A sizable contingent of hard-liners objects to any legal status for them at all, and others want something short of full citizenship.

That's why Mr. Bush's invocation of benevolence is so important. Those who crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visas broke the law, but they are still human beings. We diminish our own humanity by refusing to recognize them as such. We need to fix an immigration system that has failed to secure our borders or regulate the flow of new workers into our economy in a rational way, but Mr. Bush's remarks remind us that we also need to bring some compassion to the debate. That means rejecting any approach that enshrines a permanent underclass in our nation.

There is no indication that Republicans in Washington were paying much attention to what Mr. Bush said in Dallas. They didn't follow his lead on immigration when he was president, and there's little chance they will now. That's a shame. Failing to deal comprehensively is bad politics for the GOP, it is bad for our prospects for economic growth, and, as Mr. Bush reminded us, it is a stain on our national character.

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