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Bush: Immigrants Deserve 'Benevolent Spirit'

BJ Austin

Former President George W. Bush welcomed 20 immigrants from 12 countries as U.S. citizens this morning, hailing the historic contributions of newcomers and calling for a "benevolent spirit" in the debate over immigration reform.

The citizenship ceremony, at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, was the centerpiece of a morning-long event focused on immigrants.

The former president focused on their economic and cultural contributions, saying each generation brings new vitality to America.

"Newcomers have a special way of appreciating the opportunities of America, and when they seize those opportunities, our whole nation benefits," Bush told the crowd at the first public event held in the Bush Center's Freedom Hall.

Bush briefly addressed the current immigration reform debate in Washington, D.C.  He began by saying the laws governing the immigration system aren't working, that the system is broken.

"I don't intend to get involved in the politics or the specifics of policy," he said. "But I do hope there is a positive resolution to the debate. And I hope during the debate that we keep a benevolent spirit in mind, and that we understand the contribution immigrants make to our country.”

During his administration, Bush’s immigration overhaul plan included a guest worker program and a path to citizenship.  It was killed in Congress.

Murray Chapman is one of the 20 brand-new U.S. citizens who took the oath and posed for pictures with the former president. He's lived in North Texas for 14 years, coming from New Zealand.  He says immigration rules need to be clear and enforced.

"I don't think anybody should walk straight on in," Chapman said, with his two daughters looking on.  "There  should be rules and regulations.  There should be." 

Marine Corps Private First Class Antonio Villaceran, also a new citizen, appreciated Bush's remarks and his institute's emphasis on immigrant contributions.

"I love what George Bush is doing right now.  I think it's a wonderful thing." 

Villaceran says his family was poor back in the Philippines.  After a visit to the U.S., his mother decided that's where the family needed to be.  He was 8 when he arrived in 2001, not speaking any English.  He says his family has worked very hard, and becoming a U.S. Marine and a U.S.  citizen was his dream. 

University of North Texas political scientist Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha says Bush's bully pulpit at the Presidential Center in Dallas could have some influence on the discussion in Washington, in spite of the former president's insistence that he's staying out of it. 

"Perhaps as a former president from his own Bush  Center, he can advocate for a sensible dialogue and a practical solution to an issue that has been an ongoing issue for a couple of decades," Eshbaugh-Soha said.

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BJ Austin has more than 25 years of broadcast journalism experience, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.