DALLAS (AP) - As the U.S. debates immigration policy, former President George W. Bush says it should "do so with a benevolent spirit and keep in mind the contribution of immigrants."
"Immigrants have helped build the country that we've become and immigrants can help build a dynamic tomorrow," Bush said Tuesday as he opened a conference on the benefits of immigration hosted by the George W. Bush Institute and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
The conference comes as immigration reform is getting renewed attention following an election in which Hispanics overwhelmingly supported Democratic President Barack Obama. Bush has long been concerned about immigration and had warned the Republican Party as he left office in January 2009 not to become "anti-immigrant."
"America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time," Bush said Tuesday.
One of the Bush Institute's focuses is economic growth, and the conference is part of an institute initiative to find ways for the U.S. to achieve 4 percent gross domestic product growth. For the most recent quarter, the country's GDP grew at 2.7 percent.
Bush said immigrants come with "new skills and new ideas" and "fill a critical gap in our labor market."
Following Bush's remarks, the conference featured panels with business leaders and economic experts on both the immigrants' contributions to economic growth and their contributions to businesses.
A handbook on growth and immigration by the institute notes immigrants are more likely than people born in the U.S. to be self-employed and are disproportionally responsible for U.S. international patent applications and for starting successful engineering and technology firms.
Immigration reform is expected to be taken up by Congress starting next year.
Bush's own promised overhaul of immigration policy in his second term was defeated in Congress when leading lawmakers, including fellow Republicans, thought provisions such as a guest worker program amounted to amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Michelle Mittelstadt, spokeswoman for the Migration Policy Institute, said it's significant that Bush is speaking about the issue at a time when "there's a lot of soul-searching in the Republican Party about what sort of policy decisions it should be taking on immigration."
She said Bush set out a framework for immigration reform in the early months of his presidency, before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed the direction of his administration, and then tried in 2006 and 2007 to get an immigration overhaul through Congress.
"Though he didn't succeed, he has a long track record of working on this issue," she said.
The current push for reform comes from both a recognition that the system is "broken or is dysfunctional" and an acknowledgement that it will be an important issue for both parties, she said.
James K. Glassman, executive director of the Bush Institute, said that when the institute was identifying policy areas that could help grow the economy, immigration was one of the points that quickly emerged.
"We need to attract the best and brightest and keep them here," Glassman said.
Glassman added that the U.S. also needs a solution for those who are already in the country illegally.
He said the institute's goal is to raise the visibility of immigration issues, making sure that economic growth is connected to immigration. "We see our role as being longer term and broader," Glassman said.
"We didn't plan on this being so timely, but there is no doubt it is extremely timely," Glassman said.