A Path for Progress on Immigration Reform

In his Sept. 11 address and a new book, former President Bush illustrates a way forward

In a speech on September 11 at the United 93 crash site in Pennsylvania, former President George W. Bush appealed to the better angels of our nature by contrasting “the America I know” with today’s bitter partisan divisions, including over immigration. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack, Bush recalled, “I saw Americans reaffirm their welcome to immigrants and refugees.”

It’s a subject close to the heart of the former president. Earlier this year, he weighed into the controversy over immigration, not with another speech or policy tome — the usual tools of an elder statesman — but with a paintbrush and the engaging stories of more than 40 immigrant Americans who are blessing their adopted homeland.

In a richly illustrated book, “Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants” (New York: Crown Publishers, 2021), the nation’s 43rd president tells the sometimes harrowing stories and literally paints the portraits of immigrants who now call America home. This is not primarily a policy book, but it points unmistakably toward a more humane and economically sensible reform of the U.S. immigration system.

As a native and former governor of Texas, Bush writes that he learned to appreciate the contribution of immigrants, and Mexican-Americans in particular, to his state’s success. He saw first-hand how immigrants embrace the values most Americans affirm — hard work, devotion to faith and family, and a love of freedom and opportunity.

At the heart of the book are the individual stories and portraits of immigrants living in America today. The former president’s paintings of each of them are strikingly good and capture the energy and optimism of their subjects.

The immigrants portrayed in the book come from 35 countries. Some, such as Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, are now famous. But the most touching stories are about ordinary people who could be our middle-class neighbors today but who endured unimaginable hardship before arriving at our shores.

Several of the subjects profiled survived ethnic violence in Central African countries that some politicians might dismiss in pungent terms as unpromising sources for immigration. As a boy in Burundi in 1993, Gilbert Tuhabonye narrowly escaped death and suffered serious burns to his legs after Hutu militants set fire to his Catholic school. He eventually immigrated to the United States, won the Division II national championship in the 800 meters for Abilene Christian University in 1999, and now coaches high school track and heads a charitable foundation.

Others fled persecution under communist governments. Joseph Kim managed to escape from North Korea to China, where he received aid from a South Korean missionary. He recalls that years of exposure to anti-American propaganda melted away when he encountered the kindness of the Marines at a U.S. consulate office on his way to freedom in the United States. In China, Bob Fu was forced to study “prison theology” when he was arrested for evangelizing his Christian faith. He escaped to Hong Kong and in June 1997 was given asylum in the United States, where today he runs a charitable organization that supports underground churches and Christian networks in China.

The individual portraits are worth reflection on their own, but the book also provides hard information and concrete proposals for real reform of the system. For instance, President Bush presents a colorful, two-page graphic showing how immigration has changed since 1850, both where the immigrants come from as well as their share of the population. A striking fact is that immigrants make up about the same share of the population today as they did from roughly 1860 to 1910. What has changed is where they come from — far fewer from Europe, far more from Latin America and Asia. But as Bush captures so well in his portraits, the pro-American character of individual immigrants remains the same.

The book also shows the complicated, even byzantine, route immigrants must follow for any hope of earning a green card and eventual citizenship. We are nowhere near “open borders,” and we haven’t been for more than a century. The message is that we need to reach agreement on a system that is more welcoming and less arbitrary than the one we try to enforce today.

On the question of what comprehensive immigration reform should look like, Bush briefly outlines six principles. The first is perhaps the most important: a robust and efficient system that emphasizes employability and skills “while increasing overall levels of immigration to meet the needs of our economy.” He also calls for meaningful border enforcement, more opportunities for temporary worker migration, permanent legalization of the Dreamers, and “full assimilation” of immigrants into American culture and civic and economic life.

“[A]t its core, immigration is a sign of a confident and successful nation,” Bush writes. “It says something about our country that people all around the world are willing to leave their homes and their families to risk everything and come here. Becoming an American citizen is challenging, time consuming, and competitive — as it should be. The immigration system is also confusing, costly, and inefficient, and needs to be fixed.”

The former president knows from experience the political challenges of immigration reform. In January 2004, as he was facing a tough re-election later that year, Bush boldly embraced immigration reform at a White House speech. He won re-election in November with an expanded share of the Hispanic vote, a high-water mark for Republicans that the party should seek to replicate. In his second term he worked across the aisle to pass a reform bill out of the Senate in 2006, only to see it stall in the GOP-controlled house.

Bush writes that he intentionally delayed publication of his book until after November to avoid the politics of a presidential election. But now the election is long over, and leaders of both parties need to decide if they want to work together to build a better system or continue the partisan wrangling that has torpedoed reform in the past. In a winsome way, former President Bush has painted an attractive picture of a path forward to an American future that’s as bright as the faces in his book.