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George W. Bush Lends His Voice To Immigrants In 'Out Of Many, One'

A portrait of Carlos Mendez, by former President George W. Bush
A portrait of Carlos Mendez, by former President George W. Bush

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?"

Interview Highlights

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

<em>Out of Many, One: Portraits of America's Immigrants,</em> by George W. Bush
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Out of Many, One: Portraits of America's Immigrants, by George W. Bush

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.