THE BLOG
11/12/2012 03:17 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

For Obama's Immigration Legacy, Turn to George Bush

The defining legacy of President Obama's second term may well lie in finding a solution to our anti-immigrant status quo. To get there, he should appoint former President George Bush to head up a blue ribbon commission to propose comprehensive immigration reform.

A shell-shocked Republican party is showing signs of realizing that its stance on immigration leads towards long-term perpetual losses. Some Republican stalwarts believe their anti-immigration policies are right, and the only problem is that their language is a bit overheated, so that promising "full legal normalization (just short of citizenship)" will be good enough.

Other severe conservatives, like Sean Hannity, now claim they have "evolved" to see that there could be a pathway to citizenship after all.

But among those with standing on this issue on the right, only former President Bush has enough past credibility on immigration to bring both sides together in order to reach a successful conclusion to one of America's most divisive policies.

It was no accident that Bush garnered over 40 percent of the Latino vote in his 2004 re-election bid (compared to Romney's dismal 27 percent showing in the wake of his "self-deportation" stance). While Bush's policies on immigration are hardly what most supporters of undocumented immigrants would aspire for, his end to "catch and release" and efforts to outline a middle ground away from mass deportation put him at odds with the more anti-immigrant wing of his party both then and now.

For President Obama to turn to George Bush at this delicate turning point in the post-election Republican soul-searching could secure two legacies if it succeeds: Obama's debt to Latino voters for giving him a second chance would be paid back, and Bush's signature achievement in history would not be confined to the things that happened on his watch while in the White House. Few former presidents get a chance to get it right the second time.

Many on the left would cringe at seeing George Bush returning to the public stage. So what. For at least this progressive, from a family of immigrants who simply could not get into America under current policies, breaking through the barriers blocking lasting immigration reform is a paramount moral issue.

My grandfather, illiterate in English and with no money or special skills, arrived here in the 1890s. He slipped in before the harsher laws to keep out similar undesirables were passed. Nevertheless, his hard work as a peddler fleeing from czarist Lithuania (after a brief stint in South Africa) enabled him to start a small retail business, and become a "job creator" of his day. And those more lenient immigration polices of the day gave him the chance to lay the foundation for the contributions of several later generations to American prosperity.

On my mother's side, however, the harsher National Origins Act of 1924 and similar laws enacted in the 1920s created barriers keeping out many other Eastern European Jews who also wanted to escape to freedom. We will never know how many died because anti-immigration sentiment prevented their willing relatives from taking them in, or what contributions they could have made to advance America.

In the current century, when capital moves freely around the world, we cannot afford to block human capital from going where it will be best utilized. We can no longer treat 11 million humans as somehow perpetually "illegal," as opposed to people who have violated a law but by making some recompense can set their past right. That is why in this small political window when a different path appears possible, harnessing all talent, however unlikely, is both good politics and good policy.

Follow David Abromowitz on Twitter -- @dabromowitz

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