The border with Mexico. Credit: Nick Ut/Getty

April 30, 2021   6 mins

I liked George W. Bush. There, I’ve said it. He had a twinkle in his eye and a self-deprecating style that warmed a room. I came across him a few times during his presidency, when I was based in Washington, and they were cheerful occasions.

He also killed a lot of people, or at least his policies did. Of course, all presidents kill people, by commission or omission, but to some the sins of George W. Bush are egregious, unforgivable. I told some jolly stories about him at a conference once and a young woman came up to me afterwards to object, “how could you say such things of a war criminal?”

I assume she will not be buying Mr Bush’s new book, Out of Many, One. Or she’ll at least give the autographed deluxe edition, retailing for $250, a miss. (It will be clothbound, we are told, and contained within a slipcover.) She will miss, then, pictures of dozens of oil paintings Mr Bush has fashioned. His subjects are immigrants to the United States, sensitively and lovingly portrayed, celebrated and humanised.

“Bush’s painting style is inelegant,” as one review in Art in America elegantly put it. “His subjects’ eyes are often misaligned … and even though he attempts to create depth and shadow, the facial features ultimately fail to convey anything resembling human warmth.” But of course it’s not really about the art. It’s about the politics, which are met with approval. “The book, providing an honorific framing, bestows a dignity upon his subjects that his presidential policies did not.”

Out of Many, One doesn’t tip-toe around the subject of immigration or suggest there are good people on both sides of the argument. It comes out, instead, 100% in favour; it tells anyone who opens its pages that immigration made America, and will continue to make it, and anyone who doesn’t believe that is wrong. Brown and black faces stare out, proudly: safe in the knowledge that the author, the 43rd president of the United States, wants them to belong.

George W. Bush is taking on the nativists in his party, the cruel wing of Republicans. Taking on Donald Trump. Calling them all out. Introducing his book in the Wall Street Journal last month, he wrote: “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. Over the years, our instincts have always tended toward fairness and generosity. The reward has been generations of grateful, hard-working, self-reliant, patriotic Americans who came here by choice.”

“My hope,” says Bush, “is that this book will help focus our collective attention on the positive impacts that immigrants are making on our country.”

Which is good. And because (I am relieved to say, given my previously lonely affection for him) it is no longer eccentric to take a generous view of George W. Bush, the book will contribute to the debate about immigration in America from a humane perspective. It will bring people together and that, in the modern United States, is no mean achievement.

But it misses the point. And the risk is that it encourages others to miss the point too. These bromides about the decency of immigrants may well be important correctives to the un-American hostility of the Trump era but they fail totally to address the perfectly reasonable question that Trump raised. A question that hangs over the Biden administration as it tries to work out its immigration policy, but more important a question that hangs over the whole United States.

Midway through his term of office, not in a tweet or a campaign rally but in the calm of an almost conventional speech, Donald Trump said: “America is a cutting-edge economy but our immigration system is stuck in the past.” Many Americans, including some who cannot stand Trump, would agree with that. The immigration question of the next decade is not, “should America be welcoming to immigrants?” Or even “what do we do about the southern border becoming overwhelmed by desperate people?” No, the question is whether America welcomes the wrong type of immigration and needs to change. “Is it time to favour computer programmers over gardeners?” That’s the question. Same numbers — a million a year, legally — but different people.

But the question is not posed. Not because Americans fear people speaking other languages or cooking with strange ingredients or praying to other gods. The problem is not them, many Americans say: the problem is us. Our society, our community, has become — with the best intentions — a more dangerous place. The anti-Trump campaigner and former Bush aide David Frum made the point in a piece in The Atlantic magazine a couple of years ago: “More and more of the people who live among Americans are not on equal legal footing with Americans. They cannot vote. They cannot qualify as jurors. If they commit a crime they are subject not only to prison but to deportation. And because these noncitizens are keenly aware of those things, they adjust their behavior. They keep a low profile. They do not complain to the authorities if, say, their boss cheats them out of some of their pay, or if they are abused by a parent or partner at home.”

This is the result of the array of an immigration policy that broadly allows family ties — and ingenuity in hopping across the southern border — to trump skills. A policy that brings in adult siblings of already poor, semi-legal residents. As a result not everyone in America gets the full right to stay: some will be legal temporary residents, some students who should not be working, some came illegally but can stay (like the Dreamers whose parents brought them to America illegally as children) on some kind of sufferance.

Of course, there are plenty of wealthy Americans to whom this doesn’t matter much. They lead lives insulated from the masses. They have cheap gardeners on tap: cheap labour — desperate labour — which enables the low-wage America that keeps so many people so poor. Bernie Sanders used to point out that open immigration policies were very much the plaything of the rich — of faceless, placeless corporate America. There are sociologists who point out, too, that a nation desperate for labour, having to pay more for it, might not have incarcerated so many black men so readily in recent decades.

What is unquestionably the case is that America a few decades ago was almost entirely filled by citizens with equal rights. It has morphed in recent years into a place with graded citizenship; in some big states, like California, fully 10% of residents are not full citizens. As Frum put it, “No intentional policy has led the US to accept more low-wage low-skill labourers and fewer cancer researchers. Yet that is what the United States is doing.”

Here we get back to George W Bush. Because although he avoids it in his picture book, he knows all of this. He knew it back in 2007 when he tried to get Congress to agree to act and do so in exactly the direction Donald Trump wanted. He brought together the liberal lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy, and the Republican John McCain. In exchange for the decent treatment of people already in America they proposed that future immigration be limited by skills not family ties.

The effort failed. Among those who scoffed was the then presidential hopeful Barack Obama. “How many of our forefathers would have measured up to this points system? How many would have been turned back at Ellis Island?”

The answers were a surprise. On the points system, “almost all of them.” And on Ellis Island: “virtually none.” The reason is that the whole “bring me your huddled masses” schtick is a bit of a con. Nearly 30 years ago, a taskforce led by then congresswoman Barbara Jordan, a hugely respected African American Democrat, blew it apart with a detailed study of the people who actually came to Ellis Island. Jordan pointed out that they were in fact more skilled than the average American at the time. They were seamstresses and stonemasons, tailors and bricklayers. They had, in other words, the skills the nation needed. They were the cancer researchers of their time. This was not charity; it was nation building.

Now, the argument goes, American immigration is the opposite of nation building. The immigration system actively pulls at the threads of community. It overburdens services and it underserves the wider causes of the nation. It’s lovely that George Bush’s book contains such an array of faces but they may be — to be brutal — quite often the wrong faces.

Bush knows this, and Biden does too. The current President is fast becoming a president of consequence. Above all a president who understands community and place. If Biden moves on immigration — goes for big reform — at least one former president will have his back. Even if he can’t paint.

Justin Webb presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four. His Panorama documentary “Trump the Sequel”, is available now on  Iplayer