Former President George W. Bush called on lawmakers to tackle immigration reform with a "benevolent spirit" during a conference on immigration and economic growth Tuesday morning.
Bush said he hopes lawmakers shaping the nation's policies "keep in mind the contribution of immigrants" during introductory remarks at the event, which was hosted by the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas.
The conference was intended to spotlight immigrants who have contributed meaningfully to the economic growth and culture of the country.
"Immigrants come with new skills and new ideas," Bush said. "They fill a critical gap in the labor market."
They can "help build a dynamic tomorrow," he added.
Bush has rarely spoken publicly about politics since he left the White House, and while the former president did not offer specific immigration reform suggestions, he cautioned that "America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time."
Bush won record support from Latinos during his presidential campaigns, pulling in about 35 percent of the Latino vote in 2000 and about 40 percent in 2004.
His family-values message and his dogged outreach to Latino voters helped his standing in the community and his flexible stance on immigration helped him avoid the pitfalls that doomed Mitt Romney, who endorsed a controversial "self-deportation" immigration policy that turned off Latino voters in 2012.
Bush was also the last president to make a push in Congress for comprehensive immigration reform, calling for increased border security and workplace enforcement of immigration laws. He supported a legal pathway for foreign workers to enter the country to reduce the number of people sneaking in undocumented. And he often reminded the public during his presidency that immigrants contribute positively to the economy and should be welcomed, not feared.
"They invigorate our soul," he said of immigrants on Tuesday. "They work hard for a chance at a better life."