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Former President George W. Bush paints in his studio in Central Texas in this undated handout photo.

C.A. Smith Photography

With ‘Out of Many, One,’ George W. Bush makes a case for immigration reform

Bush’s new book of portraits highlighting 43 immigrants arrives at a moment of increased attention on the national immigration debate

SHARE With ‘Out of Many, One,’ George W. Bush makes a case for immigration reform
SHARE With ‘Out of Many, One,’ George W. Bush makes a case for immigration reform

Former President George W. Bush has some unfinished business he’d like to take care of.

During an interview about his new book, “Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants” with CBS News, Bush said one of his greatest disappointments as president was not passing immigration reform.

“I campaigned on immigration reform,” he said. “I made it abundantly clear to voters this is something I intended to do.”

The Bush-endorsed Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 was the closest the U.S. has come to major immigration reform in decades, but it never even got a vote in Congress. Now, nearly a decade-and-a-half later, Bush is using his developing talent in visual art, personal stories and the soft power of the post-presidency to push for immigration reform again — and at a time when problems along America’s southern border has become the new administration’s most challenging issue.

In “Out of Many, One,” the 43rd president painted 43 portraits of immigrants, like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, and Joseph Kim, a 30-year-old North Korean refugee who came to the U.S. when he was 15.

Kim grew up “trained to hate Americans,” he said during a Zoom call with Deseret News, but coming to America was the only choice he had. In 2003, he became an orphan after his father died of starvation and his mother disappeared. Later that year, his sister left for China, saying she would return with food and money, but he hasn’t seen her since. Three years later, Kim snuck into China to look for her himself. He lived in perpetual worry that he would caught and sent back to North Korea, but eventually met someone running an underground shelter for North Koreans.

Kim later made it to the U.S., where he claimed refugee status under the North Korean Human Rights Act Bush signed in 2004. He became an American citizen in 2013 and now works as an assistant and expert in residence at the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative.

“Coming from that humble background to be painted by a former president of the United States, a country that is one of the most powerful and respected countries, how am I supposed to describe that honor?” Kim asked.

Bush painted two portraits of Kim. One is for the “Out of Many, One” exhibition opening Tuesday at his presidential center in Dallas that runs until Jan. 3, 2022, and another he gifted to Kim. Kim said he sees the book as “a message of hope for people with hopelessness” and “a message for Americans to be better citizens, better people.”

“There are over 70 million displaced people who need help, and if you have an opportunity and capacity to help, why wouldn’t you?” Kim said.

The book arrives at a moment of increased attention on the highly partisan immigration debate. More than 18,500 unaccompanied migrant children crossed the southern border last month, a record, and President Joe Biden is facing pressure from the right and left to better manage the border. On Saturday, Biden said he would raise the cap on the number of refugees the U.S. admits annually after Democrats criticized him for keeping the limit at Trump-era levels. There’s also movement on immigration legislation in Congress.

Last month, the House passed a pair of immigration bills that help provide pathways to citizenship, temporary status, or permeant residency for undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children, sometimes referred to as “Dreamers,” and agricultural workers. The votes for both proposals were largely along party line, with all or nearly all House Democrats voting in favor, but there were some Republicans who voted for each. Lawmakers are now waiting on the Senate.

“The political conversation on immigration is always difficult, and I think anyone who works in immigration policy will tell you it’s a long game,” said Laura Collins, director of the Bush Institute’s Growth Initiative with Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Enter Bush, who wrote in a Washington Post op-ed published Friday that he hopes his book will accomplish two things: share portraits of immigrants, “each with a remarkable story I try to tell,” and humanize the immigration debate.

The book isn’t meant as a policy brief, Bush wrote, though he did list areas for reform in his op-ed, like pathways to citizenship for “Dreamers,” increased legal immigration, and an all-of-the-above border management strategy that includes surveillance and some physical barriers.

Collins, the Bush Institute director, described herself as someone who gets “very sappy about patriotic things.” For her, the book personalizes immigration in a way that data can’t, and it shows what America means to the converted.

“I think this is such a great country, and to read how they view this place, that’s so important to me, too, I think is really beautiful and emotional,” she said.

Some of Bush’s views clash with those of a growing number of Republican voters today. Reuters/Ipsos polling released last month found a majority of Republicans are opposed to pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and 22% view immigration as the nation’s most important problem.

But perhaps the former president could change some minds?

Out of office, ex-presidents lose the power of the bully pulpit, but they gain the opportunity to transcend everyday politics and work on less contentious causes in the public interest, like promoting vaccinations or raising money for victims of natural disasters. That Bush is using his platform to weigh in on policy, even in a less partisan way, is noteworthy.

“I think it’s a natural extension of his feelings about immigrants to do something that honors their contributions to this country,” said Russell Riley, a University of Virginia professor and co-chairman of the Miller Center Presidential Oral History Program.

Bush began taking art lessons from Dallas artist Gail Norfleet in 2012 and put out his first book of paintings, “Portraits of Courage,” in 2017. His “Out of Many, One” portraits, painted with oil on stretched canvas, make a patriotic, conservative case for immigration reform.

Immigration should be “a great and defining asset of the United States,” Bush wrote in his op-ed, not a source of discord.

“We should never forget that the desire to live in the United States — a worldwide and as powerful an aspiration as ever — is an affirmation of our country and what we stand for,” he wrote.