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By Marice Richter

DALLAS (Reuters) - Former President George W. Bush on Tuesday called on lawmakers to debate immigration reform "with a benevolent spirit" and bear in mind the contribution of immigrants in building the country.

Bush's comments came at the opening of a daylong conference on immigration and economic growth sponsored by his namesake George W. Bush Institute and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

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

During his presidency, Bush advocated for immigration reform that included ramped-up border security as well as pathway to citizenship for some illegal immigrants in the United States. His 2007 push for immigration reform eventually died in the Senate.

But new interest in revisiting the immigration reform debate has emerged since November's presidential election, when Hispanic voters were key in helping re-elect President Barack Obama. The Obama administration relaxed deportation rules last summer so that illegal immigrants brought into the country as children could stay and work.

That move proved critical in Obama winning an estimated 66 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide.

Both Democrats and Republicans have said they want to pursue an overhaul of federal immigration law.

Bush, who has largely kept a low profile since leaving office, did not endorse a policy plan in his remarks Tuesday but pointed to the contributions of immigrants in building the country's economy.

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

He said immigrants bring along new ideas and skills and help fill a critical gap in the nation's labor market.

Bush went on to say: "America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time."

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Cynthia Osterman)

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