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Bush welcomes new citizens in soft push for immigration reform

By Jim Acosta and Paul Steinhauser, CNN
July 10, 2013 -- Updated 1735 GMT (0135 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bush made speech at a naturalization ceremony at his presidential library
  • Former president's speech comes same day House GOP discuss immigration reform
  • In interview last week, Bush said bill should be passed because system is broken
  • Bush tried and failed to get reform passed in his second term in office

DALLAS (CNN) -- There was no impassioned plea to pass immigration reform. But the image was unmistakable.

The sight of former President George W. Bush welcoming newly sworn-in citizens at a naturalization ceremony at his library and museum in Dallas on Wednesday offered a sharp contrast to the hardening opposition to immigration legislation in Washington.

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Speaking for only five minutes, Bush did weigh in on the immigration system he tried but failed to reform during his second term in office.

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"The laws governing the immigration system aren't working. The system is broken," Bush told the crowd.

"I don't intend to get involved in the politics or the specifics of policy, but I do hope there is a positive resolution to the debate," Bush said in a soft endorsement of reform efforts on Capitol Hill. "I hope during the debate that we keep a benevolent spirit in mind. We understand the contributions immigrants make to our country. "

Twenty new citizens from 12 different countries, including two members of the Armed Forces, were sworn in at the naturalization ceremony conducted along with officials from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

"It's an honor to call you fellow Americans," Bush told the newcomers.

Following Bush's remarks, each freshly sworn in citizen lined up to receive their naturalization certificate and a handshake from the former president.

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Among the newly naturalized at the George W. Bush Center in Dallas, Danny Diaz admitted he illegally crossed the U.S.- Mexico border in 1994 in a long journey from his native Guatemala.

It took nearly a decade for Diaz to receive legal residency status and finally citizenship.

"It's a long wait. It's a hard wait, too," he said. "But if you work for it and you prove you know how to behave in this country, everything comes through."

Diaz called immigration reform "a good thing."

"There's a lot of good people out there who don't have papers," he said.

Lance Cpl. Antonio Miguel Villaceran, a U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, was unaware Bush would be in attendance. "I love what George Bush is doing right now," he said.

Akshaya Bandaru, who immigrated to the U.S. from India, received a private meeting with Bush along with the other newcomers and their families.

Bandaru said the former president was funny.

"I told him I was going into medical school and he said 'I hope it's geriatrics,'" Bandaru said.

Bush pushes for progress on immigration

The former president has stayed out of domestic politics since leaving the White House in January 2009, and the timing of Bush's speech and a meeting of House Republicans to discuss the issue appears to be a coincidence.

Hannah Abney, spokeswoman for the Bush presidential center, told CNN that the Texas event had been planned for a couple of months.

The former Republican president tried but failed to pass immigration reform during his second term in the White House, due in part to opposition from Republican members of Congress.

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In an interview with ABC News last week while in Africa, Bush noted the importance of fixing a "broken system" and he said immigration reform "has a chance to pass."

"It's a very difficult bill to pass because there are a lot of moving parts and the legislative process can be ugly. But it looks like they are making some progress," Bush told ABC.

Asked if it will hurt the GOP if Republicans fail to pass the bill, Bush told ABC that "the reason to pass immigration reform is not to bolster a Republican Party -- it's to fix a system that's broken."

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The bill passed by the Senate late last month includes an eventual pathway to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. That provision is opposed by many House Republicans, who consider it "amnesty."

Bush's brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, last week urged the GOP-led House to pass the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform package with a few additional requirements.

Jeb Bush, who is considering a 2016 bid for the White House, made his comments in a opinion piece he co-wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

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The former president spoke about immigration reform at a conference last December.

"America is a nation of immigrants. Immigrants have helped build the country that we have become, and immigrants can help build a dynamic tomorrow," he said.

"As our nation debates the proper course of action relating to immigration, I hope we do so with a benevolent spirit and keep in mind the contribution of immigrants," he added.

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CNN's Dana Davidsen and Ashley Killough contributed to this report

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