updated 9/19/2010 3:56:54 PM ET 2010-09-19T19:56:54

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell says illegal immigrants do essential work in the U.S. and he has firsthand knowledge of that — because they fix his house.

Powell, a moderate Republican, urged his party Sunday to support immigration generally because it is "what's keeping this country's lifeblood moving forward."

In an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press," he said a path to legal status should be offered to illegal immigrants because they "are doing things we need done in this country."

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He added: "They're all over my house, doing things whenever I call for repairs, and I'm sure you've seen them at your house. We've got to find a way to bring these people out of the darkness and give them some kind of status."

Powell did not say whether he's hired illegal immigrants directly or they showed up with contractors.

Powell was President George W. Bush's first-term secretary of state and the nation's top military officer in the presidency of Bush's father and in the early months of the Clinton administration. Despite his Republican standing — he was once considered a formidable prospect for the GOP presidential or vice presidential nominations but stayed out of contention — he endorsed Democrat Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

In lamenting the party's rightward drift Sunday, he said Republicans must not become anti-immigration and spoke in support of legislation that would give certain children of illegal immigrants a way to become citizens if they pursue a college education or military service.

Immigration, he said, offers the U.S. a chance to maintain a youthful population in contrast with the aging of Europe and Japan.

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Powell also said "fringe" elements on the right are taking a low road when they label Obama a foreign-born Muslim and peddle other false theories about non-American influences on the president's character. Obama was born in the U.S. and is Christian.

"Let's attack him on policy, not nonsense," he said.

And he said the tea party may not become an enduring force unless it moves beyond slogans and promotes an agenda that people "can see, touch and actually believe in." It's not enough, he said, to call for goals that most Americans support, such as controlled federal spending and adherence to the Constitution.

The former secretary of state said he still sees Obama as a transformational figure, if one who has lost some of his ability to connect with people.

Powell said he's not giving up on the GOP, even in the face of a rightward drift, and says it might actually help Obama if Republicans win the House in November and gain responsibility for driving policy, not just opposing Democrats.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Powell: Gingrich trying to make news, ‘stir up dust’

  1. Closed captioning of: Powell: Gingrich trying to make news, ‘stir up dust’

    >> not go down low.

    >> give me one example, newt gingrich , former speaker of the house , has out a book "roots of obama's rage." i'll put it up on the screen for national view. what if obama is outside our comprehension that only if you understand kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together his actions? that is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior. this is the person that is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president.

    >> i would tell my fellow americans, think carefully about what was just said. think carefully about some of the stuff coming across the blogs and airwaves. let's make a couple of points. one, the president was born in the united states of america . let's get rid of that one and go to the birther thing. let's attack him on policy. next, he is a christian, not a muslim. 20% of people say he is a muslim. 80% apparently did not believe he's a muslim.

    >> 80% of republicans believe he's muslim.

    >> surprise, surprise. 9.6, but if unemployment was down to 4%, only 5% would think he's muslim. they're attacking the president on this line. he is not a muslim. he is a christian. we have to be careful when we take things like the book that's the source of all of this and suggest that somehow the president of the united states is channeling his dead father through some kenyan spirits. this doesn't make any sense. mr. gingrich does these things from time to time with a big, bold statement. he did it to a reverse racist and elena kagan , she ought to be taken off the nomination for supreme court justice . and he does it occasionally to make news and also to stir up dust, kind of like the --

    >> what is this doing, general, to the party, in your view?

    >> i think it may appeal to certain elements of the party. it may appeal to the fringe elements of the party. but i don't think it appeals to all republicans and i don't think it appeals to the whole country. this kind of chatter, he's a kenyan channeler and all this sort of stuff, makes a lot of news. you will find governor palin and people on the right side of the political spectrum , along with the tea party movement, really are getting a lot of attention, a lot of news and they're making a lot of noise. and they're making a lot of chatter throughout our political system . and that's fine. that's good. but i don't think anybody should grab that and think that's the entire country.

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