Former President George W. Bush said Thursday that White evangelical churches have become too political, as he called for lowering the volume of the immigration debate and focusing on the humanity of migrants themselves.
Mr. Bush, who has gone from president to painter in his retirement, is promoting his new book of portraits of immigrants, which he says should remind those engaged in the political battle over the issue of the kinds of people whose lives are at stake in the debate.
Democrats have seized on the former president’s work as a rebuke to the Trump era, and indeed Mr. Bush said he considered President Trump’s election loss last year a statement of voters wanted “a better tone” in politics.
But Mr. Bush also said border security and tighter asylum checks must be part of any immigration solution, and he dismissed President Biden’s idea of a broad bill to offer legal status to the entire undocumented immigrant population.
“Can we get something done? I think so. But it’s going to have to be in bite-sized pieces,” Mr. Bush said.
He said “Dreamers” are a good starting point, with most Americans finding them — who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children by their parents — the most sympathetic population among the 11 million.
Mr. Bush also revealed that he himself employs Mexican guest-workers on a tree farm business. He said eight people come every year under the H-2B visa program, helping keep the operation afloat.
“It works cause there are 8 H-2B visa holders from Mexico who come up and work for us. And they’re skilled, big family people, they send their money home to their families, and then they have to go home every year,” he said.
Mr. Bush was speaking at an event sponsored by the Bush Center in Dallas. It was moderated by Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics & religious liberty commission, who wondered why some religious adherents’ support for immigration in the U.S. has flagged in recent years.
The former president responded by wondering whether some denominations themselves haven’t strayed too far.
“Are our churches too political? Are they focused on the right mission, which is saving souls?” he said. “Churches have become, particularly the White evangelical churches, have become political instruments.”
The comments were stunning for a president whose 2004 reelection campaign relied in part on energizing those White evangelicals using the issue of same-sex marriage. Eleven states had questions about marriage on their ballots that year, including Ohio, the crucial state in the Electoral College where Mr. Bush’s campaign said it benefited from Christian turnout.
Mr. Bush’s 2021 foray into politics is a throwback to his entrance on the national stage two decades ago, when he came to the White House vowing to work on a new immigration deal that would help regularize the flow of Mexicans.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks derailed his efforts, but he returned to the issue in his second term, backing broad legalization bills taken up by the Senate in 2006 and 2007. The first of those cleared the Senate, but the House was moving the other direction, passing a major immigration enforcement bill. Both measures died.
In 2007, with the Bush administration actively helping craft the legislation, senators couldn’t even pass their own bill, as liberal Democrats joined with conservative Republicans to blow up the compromise.
The divide has in many ways grown deeper. Republicans insist that border security and enforcement must be shored up before legalization happens, even as Democrats reject security measures they long supported and call for an expanding size of legalization.
“Politicians now reign supreme,” Mr. Bush said. “People on both sides say let’s keep this issue alive because it benefits us politically.”
Alfonso Aguilar, who worked at Homeland Security in the Bush administration and now runs the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said Mr. Bush is sounding the same policies he supported while in office — particularly the need to match willing foreign workers with open jobs, but also the goal of coupling a legalization with stiffer border security.
“I think he’s being very authentic. I think he’s saying I want to change the tone of the conversation, and that’s fair,” Mr. Aguilar said.
But he said the enforcement aspect of Mr. Bush’s message is not getting enough attention, as Democrats use the former president’s other comments to hammer Republicans.
And it’s not clear how much impact Mr. Bush can have on the debate anyway.
“I think his audience, if you were to ask him, is the American people generally, but I don’t think the American people are listening. The Republican base isn’t,” Mr. Aguilar said. “I worked in his administration, I worked in immigration, I see what he’s writing. He doesn’t seem to understand the moment. The moment has changed, and the Democrats are proposing things he doesn’t agree with.”
Mr. Bush, in several interviews over the last week suggested he may have helped feed the divide by his strategy during his presidency.
He said he campaigned on both an immigration overhaul and revamping Social Security in 2004, and after he won reelection he went for Social Security first. It tanked, and he now says he wishes he’d gone for immigration instead, figuring he had a chance to succeed there.
But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said Mr. Bush wouldn’t have had any better success in 2005 than he did in 2007.
“There was a lot more to it than George Bush’s priority decisions,” Mr. Krikorian said. “Bush inspired no confidence whatsoever that the enforcement promises of those bills would actually be kept.”
Like Mr. Aguilar, Mr. Krikorian doubted the former president is winning converts.
“It’s entirely possible he’s hurting the cause he thinks he’s helping,” he said. “I’m not trying to mock the man, I’m just saying he’s so out of touch with the political realities of the country today.”