Former President George W. Bush ambled back into the spotlight Tuesday to laud legal immigration, a decade after he helped inflate the real-estate bubble to its 2007 peak while trying to boost homeownership among Hispanics.
“America is a nation of immigrants. … Immigrants can help build a dynamic tomorrow. … They invigorate our soul,” Bush said at the keynote speech of a one-day symposium on immigration’s role in the economy at the Dallas-based George W. Bush Institute.
“Growing up in Texas we have had the honor and privilege of meeting many of the newly arrived,” the former president said. “They see education as bright future for their children, some will willingly defend the flag.”
That pitch was echoed by several panel speakers, including Steven Moore, a libertarian economist and columnist at the Wall Street Journal. On one trip to border farms, Moore enthused, he met a crop-picking Mexican who was working three low-wage jobs.
“That’s the kind of person we need in this country,” he declared.
However, a few of the panel-speakers at his event tried to argue for immigration of skilled workers, rather than the current “family-based immigration” policy which tends to boost the flow of low-skill workers, most of whom are Hispanic.
“It is true that the Hispanic population has relatively higher rates of illiteracy … [and assimilation] is a longer process,” compared to higher-skilled immigrants, said Richard Vedder, a libertarian economist at Ohio University.
Bush’s return to the immigration debate comes after legislators — including then-Sen. Barack Obama — rejected his immigration-boosting proposals three times prior to 2008. Those proposals damaged Bush’s support among conservative voters.
After their immigrant-aided victory in 2012, Democrats are renewing the push to increase immigration and to win citizenship for the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants now in the country. (RELATED: Illinois poll of Hispanics finds agreement with GOP on guns, gays, abortion)
As Washington advocates argue over immigration in 2013, “I hope we do so with a benevolent spirit,” Bush said. “America can be a lawful society and be a welcoming society at the same time.”
But supporters of immigration curbs say immigrants drive down wages and win jobs ahead of American blue-collar workers.
During the current recession, immigrants have won at least half of all new jobs created since 2009. Low-skill immigration also creates a bigger market for welfare programs.
But business owners continue to press for additional low-wage workers.
A panel at the Bush event was hijacked by the former owner of Pilgrim’s Pride, a chicken-processing firm, who urged easier immigration rules. The owner, Bo Pilgrim, said 40 percent of his 55,000 workers were immigrants, but he was fined $12 million the federal government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. “This system is broke,” he said.
Bush re-entered the immigration debate a decade after he helped inflate the emerging real-estate bubble by allying with real-estate companies and banks to increase mortgage-lending to middle-class or lower-class minorities.
“Fewer than half of the Hispanics and half the African-Americans own their home,” Bush said at the October 2002 White House Conference on Increasing Minority Homeownership. “That’s a homeownership gap. It’s a — it’s a gap that we’ve got to work together to close for the good of our country, for the sake of a more hopeful future.”
The program to aid home purchases by immigrants will add an “additional $256 billion to the economy by encouraging 5.5 million new homeowners in America,” he said. “This project not only is good for the soul of the country, it’s good for the pocketbook of the country, as well.”
In 2006 and 2007, the real-estate bubble burst, affecting many indebted Hispanic homeowners in California and the other southern states.
Since then, more than 5 million homeowners have foreclosed, the median-wealth of African-American and Hispanic families has fallen by a third, President Barack Obama won the 2008 and 2012 elections, and unemployment has risen.
Roughly 23 million Americans are unemployed, underemployed or have left the labor market.