George Bush
Crown Publishing Group

Five years after his own immigration overhaul collapsed, former President George W. Bush is urging his party to again take on the issue.

Bush became the latest high-profile Republican to urge a more compassionate approach to immigration, joining a chorus of conservatives who say the party’s strident pro-enforcement tone helped cost them the presidential election. Speaking at a conference in Dallas, the former president called for an immigration approach informed by a “benevolent spirit."

“Not only do immigrants help build our economy, they invigorate our soul,” Bush said, adding that "those whom I’ve met love their families” and “see education as a bright future for their children. Some willingly defend the flag.”

The last serious attempt to revamp the nation’s immigration laws came late in Bush’s second term, when the Senate killed a bill that would have opened a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants, established tougher safeguards against employers hiring undocumented aliens, and established a guest-worker program.

The loss was a stinging rebuke to Bush, who was looking for an enduring accomplishment as he contended with sagging poll numbers. But the Republican Party appears to be more receptive in light of President Obama’s re-election, fueled in part by booming turnout and support from Latinos.

President Bush’s brother Jeb, the former governor of Florida, has also emerged as a vocal proponent of Republicans rethinking their immigration stance. Talk of immigration reform is circulating on Capitol Hill, and a top adviser to Mitt Romney said in November that the former Republican nominee’s immigration rhetoric -- including his call for policies that encouraged self-deportation -- was a mistake.

In his speech, President Bush emphasized the economic dimension of immigration reform. He stressed that an overhaul would help the United States tap into a valuable source of labor and innovation.

"Immigrants come with new skills and new ideas. They fill a critical part in our labor market. They work hard for a better life," Bush said at the event, hosted by the George W. Bush Institute and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Romney took a similar tack during the general election, saying immigration reform was an economic imperative. But it could be difficult to separate measures allowing some immigrants to work legally from other immigration issues.

For example, the Republican-controlled House recently passed a bill that would offer more visas to foreign students who obtain degrees in science, math, technology and engineering; while Democrats supported that principle, they voted against the bill because it would have eliminated a lottery for unskilled workers from countries with low immigration to the United States.