Former presidents typically try not to wade into politics — and former President George W. Bush has made a point of sticking to that unspoken rule.
In office, he pushed for immigration reform. But he hasn't discussed the matter in a significant way since he left office — until now.
He's doing it in a new book of portraits called Out of Many, One. It features the stories of 43 immigrants — athletes and public servants, business leaders, educators.
In a conversation with NPR, former President Bush talks about his art and immigration.
He says he's lending his voice through this book project to support changes to the U.S. approach to immigration: "I am attempting to join others in saying, 'The system's broken. Let's fix it.' ... I've sat down with most of these people, and their stories are unbelievably compelling."
On whether he thinks the U.S. should have a military footprint in Afghanistan in perpetuity, he says, he doesn't know. "I think, for sure, that people got to understand, if we leave, there's going to be unspeakable harm. And the question is, do we care as a nation?"
On critics' response to his art
Hard work matters. And first of all: One doesn't get better in anything in life unless you stay with it and realize where you need improvement and work on the improvement. And I think the other answer is — I'm more confident as a painter [now]. It's when I appreciate — I appreciate the critics. ... The truth of the matter is, I'm immune to criticism, I received a little in my life and I realize that it doesn't affect one's value system, for starters. And anyway, my painting is — you kind of hang it out there as a painter. I recognize that. But in this case, I'm glad people pay attention to it because it's an important issue — and that is immigration.
On his portrait of Roya Mahboob, a woman from Afghanistan
Well, first of all, it's one of my favorite paintings. ... she's covered because she's devout ... And she, after the liberation of Afghanistan, her family had fled to Iran because of the Taliban. And she came back from Iran and became a computer programmer and one of the few in the country — women computer programmers. And she then taught and she became well-known in the sense that she helped educate many, many women. And then the Taliban found out about her, started threatening her, and she left. She didn't leave happily, I might add. I mean, she loves her family and loves her country. But she couldn't operate in an environment in which she was threatened all the time and — but people got to understand, this is the Taliban. They follow through on their threats. I mean, these aren't empty, these aren't hollow words. I mean, you know, whether or not they would kill her [there's] no doubt in my mind, if they could, they would have. And so she's now in the States, and she's promoting literacy among women and entrepreneurship among women via the computer. ...
I think I capture her determination. She is a pretty woman. First of all, when you're painting women, it's really important that you have a gentle brush, I guess is the way to put it. And I think she'll like it. I think it captures her beauty, but it also captures her fierce determination and proud heritage. You know, the beautiful thing about America ... is that you can be a citizen and still hold on to your heritage. And that's important.
On whether he's worried about the future of Afghan women
Absolutely. I am, because the sad truth is, if we're not there, women will suffer. And people said, "What makes you say that?" I said, "What they did before." I mean, the history of the Taliban was one of brutalizing women. And, yeah, I'm deeply concerned about it — I hope the United States keeps a presence there. But in order for that to happen, it needs to be clearly explained why it's important. I think if leaders stand up and say, "Do you want Afghan women to suffer unspeakable harm?", the answer across America would be, no, we don't.
On the objective of war in Afghanistan after 9/11 and whether the mandate got too big
No, I don't think so. I think it doesn't require much of our presence to help, you know, stabilize the country and protect women. But it's — yeah, no question about it — it was to get rid of the Taliban and reduce the al-Qaida threat. But it turns out had we left early, the al-Qaida threat would have returned. And that's one of the dangers of leaving Afghanistan early. ... It's hard for the American people to understand. I just happen to think the mission of helping women in Afghanistan, at the same time denying sanctuary to would-be terrorists, is worth the cost.
On a portrait of an Iraqi immigrant
Tony George Bush was an interpreter for our troops. And my view was, is that if they helped our troops, they ought to be automatically given a green card if they wanted to come to the United States. And he now lives in Houston. When they asked, the immigration official asked what name he could go by, he said, "Tony George Bush," which, of course, wasn't his real name. He got Tony because the military people gave him the name Tony because he liked Frosted Flakes and he liked George Bush, you know, because his life was changed in a positive way with the liberation of Iraq. And so, yeah, he's in there. And he came to see me with his mom, which was very special.
On whether he still thinks of it as the liberation of Iraq
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. ... The sectarian violence, a lot less in the history had finished being written yet. And so you just remember what happened when we pulled out after I left the presidency: Violence spiked because there are still a lot of people out there that can't stand the thought of a democratically elected government. And is it perfect? Not at all. Is it better? I think it is.
On the portrait of Carlos Mendez, a dreamer
So, you know, it's a compelling tale in that his dad comes up here. They're stone broke in Mexico. There are jobs in Dallas area that aren't being filled. He fills it and, admittedly, not here on a on a work visa, which really does explain part of the reform that needs to take place, which is a better work program and more effective work program, both high-skilled and lower-skilled. And so he comes up here and starts sending money home like many people who are doing jobs that need to be done here in the state of Texas, for example. And the mother and son follow. The kid's ... on an innertube crossing the Rio Grande River and they end up coming. Mom dies, Dad gets injured. They live in east Texas. But the kid's a smart guy, and he gets some help along the way by caring citizens. He ends up going to a junior college in East Texas, and then Henry Cisneros [former mayor of San Antonio] finds out about him and helps him get a green card. The [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] program saved him from being kicked out. And now he's an engineer in San Antonio. He's a contributing citizen. This is an issue that can be fixed. And that is — it makes no sense for our country to take kids who came here as young kids and send them home where there's no home. And so it seems to me, Congress, if they're trying to get some reforms done, ought to start here. And most Americans agree that the DACA kids ought to be given permanent status.
On the ongoing effort by Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton to have DACA protections declared unlawful
Well, I think Congress needs to fix it. The whole issue is one of failed government. And the reason why it's failed is because the issue is too political. In other words, people think they can score political points and yet — hopefully this book will get people looking at the issue in a different way and that, you know, they realize that like, Carlos, I mean, he's making a huge contribution to our country and our will and therefore there's a sobriety in the debate and it's less scoring political points and more fixing a broken system.
On whether he thinks contributions of immigrants have been minimized in the current immigration debate
I think we go through these spasms in our country where there's a nativist sentiment where people don't focus on the positive aspects of immigration and that needs to change. Look, everybody — I shouldn't say everyone, it's a little bit bold of me to say everybody — a lot of people want to make sure we have border enforcement. But the truth of the matter is, by fixing the broken system, it does make it easier to enforce the border. And right now, the asylum system needs to be fixed. The work permits need to be changed. The DACA kids need to have certainty. And so comprehensive is not going to work during this kind of volatile political period. But I'm confident that if we can get people focused on, like the DACA issue, there's compromise to be made and a problem to be solved.
On his choice to paint many famous immigrants
I think every one of these stories is a story of loneliness, adjustment, doubt as to whether or not they'd make it, no matter if they're famous or not. It's Henry Kissinger. You know, I talked to him about this book and he agreed to let me paint him and tell his story. And, you know, I said, "What was it like coming from Nazi Germany to New York City?" And he said, "I wasn't accepted," which I thought really interesting. He said, "The first [time] I really felt accepted was when I joined an Army unit from people from the Midwest." And there was a loneliness and a isolation that many immigrants feel and a doubt as to whether or not, in Kissinger's case, there's no doubt they made the right decision to leave Nazi Germany because he's Jewish, of course.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Former presidents have to walk a delicate line. Some very much want to advocate on issues they care about, but very rarely will do so in a way that's critical of presidents who've come before or after them. That's the situation for former President George W. Bush. In office, he pushed for immigration reform, but he hasn't weighed in on that issue in a significant way until now. And he's doing it through art. President Bush has a new book of his portraits out. It's called "Out Of Many, One," and it features the stories of 43 immigrants. When I spoke with the former president, we talked about one portrait in the book of a man named Carlos Mendez. Mendez's parents took him to the U.S. from Mexico when he was just 9 years old.
GEORGE W BUSH: It's a compelling tale in that his dad comes up here. They're stone broke in Mexico. There are jobs in Dallas area that aren't being filled. He fills it and admittedly not here on a work visa. And so he comes up here and starts sending money home, like many people who are doing jobs that need to be done here in the state of Texas, for example. And the mother and son follow. Mom dies; dad gets injured. They live in East Texas. But the kid's a smart guy, and he gets some help along the way by caring citizens. He ends up going to a junior college in East Texas, and then Henry Cisneros finds out about him and helps him to get a green card. The DACA program saved him from being kicked out, and now he's an engineer. This is an issue, Rachel, that can be fixed. And that is - it makes no sense for our country to take kids who came here as young kids and send them home where there's no home.
MARTIN: Quick parenthetical - Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio, I should just say.
So in light of that and your position on DACA, what do you make of the ongoing effort by Texas' attorney general, Ken Paxton, to have DACA protections declared unlawful?
BUSH: Well, I think Congress needs to fix it. The whole - this whole issue is one of failed government. And the reason why it's failed is because the issue is too political. In other words, people think they can score political points. And yet - hopefully this book will get people looking at the issue in a different way and that, you know, they'll realize the - like Carlos, I mean, he's making a huge contribution to our country - or will, and therefore there's a - sobriety in the debate.
MARTIN: Would you describe the effort by Attorney General Ken Paxton as helpful to this debate or unhelpful?
BUSH: No, I think anything - I think what's helpful in the debate is say, why don't we sit down and solve the problem? (Laughter). And it's a problem. And it's - in my judgment, it can be solved by saying, OK, we're going to give these people legal status.
MARTIN: You write that you hope this book will, quote, "focus our collective attention on the positive impacts that immigrants are making in our country." Do you think the contributions of immigrants have been minimized in the current immigration debate?
BUSH: I think we go through these spasms in our country where there's a nativist sentiment, where people don't focus on the positive aspects of immigration. And that needs to change. A lot of people want to make sure we have border enforcement. But the truth of the matter is, by fixing the broken system, it does make it easier to enforce the border. Right now, the asylum system needs to be fixed. The work permits need to be changed. The DACA kids need to have certainty. But I'm confident that if we can get people focused on, like the DACA issue, there's compromise to be made and a problem to be solved.
MARTIN: Do you support President Biden's reversal of President Trump's restrictions on asylum to this country? In other words, President Biden has opened up asylum again. Do you support that?
BUSH: Yeah. No, here's what I support. I support fixing it. Right? So I'm not going - see, that's a political question, and I appreciate your attempts to draw me into the politics of immigration. (Laughter). I think the less politics involved in any discussion is...
MARTIN: But that's a policy choice. What President Biden has done is policy. Do you - are - I understand you don't want to get into what he's doing is right and what he's doing is wrong.
BUSH: No - well (ph) you said, do I support President Biden, do I support Republicans, do I support that? What I support is fixing a broken system.
MARTIN: What does that look like to you? You've mentioned DACA protections.
BUSH: Well, it looks like, for example, more asylum courts, more asylum judges on the border. It means having more H-1 visas and H-2A visas. It means dealing with the undocumented who have been here for a long time and pay taxes. It's - there's a lot of moving pieces.
MARTIN: Near the end of your time in office, you tried to pass a bill that would have granted a pathway to citizenship for the more...
MARTIN: ...Than 11 million people living in the country illegally.
BUSH: Well, thanks for bringing up my failure.
MARTIN: (Laughter) It did fail, in part because your own party didn't support it in the Senate.
BUSH: Not really - that's not true. It failed because - first of all, we had a very bipartisan bill moving. Ted Kennedy, McCain, a lot of Democrats...
MARTIN: You definitely had Democratic support. You had at least a...
BUSH: Big time.
MARTIN: ...Dozen. But you...
BUSH: Yeah. Well, I think (ph)...
MARTIN: ...Also had roughly a dozen Republicans who supported it, so that wasn't nearly enough.
BUSH: No, we had enough going. But I think history would show, Rachel, that this was an issue that was not allowed to move forward because of the leadership in the Senate, who happened to be Harry Reid.
MARTIN: We've talked about the intransigence of this issue, the politicization of this issue. I mean, do you think today is any better?
BUSH: No, I don't. And that's why I hope this book and other efforts that we're putting forth at the Bush Center and elsewhere will help focus the attention on a - well, first of all, what's changed is the system is clearly broken, and most people know that. And now the question is, how do you fix it?
MARTIN: I would be remiss in my job if I did not ask you if you think President Trump bears any responsibility for minimizing the contributions of immigrants.
BUSH: I know now you've brought up President Trump and President Biden both, trying to draw me in to comment on my successors. And I don't think - you know, I'm not going to do that. I've been very disciplined about that. I'm not going to do it now. All I know is that we've gone through a period of high populist drama. And throughout our history, these populist streaks create a sense of isolationism, protectionism and nativism. And I didn't like characterizations of immigrants in harsh terms, and therefore I am attempting to join others in saying the system's broken; let's fix it.
MARTIN: Forty-third president of the United States, George W. Bush.
Thank you for your time.
BUSH: Yeah, thanks, Rachel.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBB CAPPELLETTO GROUP'S "GOTHAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.