Bush Proposes Legal Status for Immigrant Labor
Workers Could Stay Six Years or More
By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2004; Page A01
President Bush, saying the nation has failed millions of illegal immigrants who live in fear of deportation, yesterday proposed an ambitious plan that would allow undocumented workers to legally hold jobs in the United States for the first time.
Taking on an issue he shelved after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush proposed a program that would make the 8 million undocumented immigrants in the United States eligible for temporary legal status for at least six years, as long as they are employed. But it would not automatically put them on a path to obtaining citizenship or even permanent resident status.
"We must make our immigration laws more rational, and more humane," Bush told 200 Latino supporters attending his first White House announcement of the election year. "I believe we can do so without jeopardizing the livelihoods of American citizens."
What Bush calls his "temporary worker" program was eagerly embraced by business groups but condemned as stingy and impractical by advocates for immigrants. The administration hopes the plan will appeal to Hispanic voters and expand the Republicans' base, and strategists in both parties described it as politically shrewd. But many said it has little chance of passing Congress in the form Bush described.
A presidential adviser said the immigration plan appeared to be the opening chapter of an agenda being designed by Bush aides who are planning for a general election race against former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who has sprinted to the front among Democratic contenders. Dean said in a statement that Bush's plan "would create a permanent underclass of service workers with second-class status." Other elements are likely to include proposals to limit lawsuits and add private accounts as part of the Social Security system.
Labor advocates warned that the president's proposal to have workers sponsored by employers to obtain legal status would prevent them from complaining about job conditions, out of fear that the employer would revoke the relationship and have them deported. Others cautioned that employers could use the threat of recruiting low-wage, legal immigrants to threaten existing U.S. employees and prevent them from seeking better working conditions.
Bush is scheduled to meet Monday in Mexico with President Vicente Fox, who has been prodding the White House to make changes in border policy. Bush called his Mexican counterpart yesterday morning, and Fox saidthe two spoke for about 15 minutes.
"He sent warm greetings to all Mexicans, particularly to those Mexicans who are there, in the United States," Fox told reporters at the opening of a primary school in Mexico City. "It's a very interesting program. We are going to wait for details."
In addition to conferring temporary legal status on undocumented workers now in the country, Bush's program would allow an unlimited number of new immigrants to enter as long as they obtain jobs through a database that would be run by the government and would offer the openings first to U.S. citizens.
Under Bush's plan, foreign workers would be legal for three years and then could renew their status at least once. The White House plans to negotiate the number of renewals with Capitol Hill, but Bush said "it will have an end." The plan would include financial incentives for temporary workers to return to their home countries.
The temporary workers -- administration officials anticipate most would be Mexican -- would be given biometrically encoded cards. They would allow the workers to come and go legally to their home countries, a trip now difficult and occasionally dangerous for illegal workers who must sneak back into the United States.
Workers entering the country would not be charged a fee for the temporary status. Illegal immigrants now in the United States would pay an unspecified fee but would not be prosecuted or expelled.
Some members of Congress said that would have the effect of rewarding people who had broken the law by using phony documents to obtain jobs. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said he believes Congress can come up with "a strong and compassionate policy" on immigration but said he has "heartfelt reservations about allowing illegal immigrants into a U.S. guest-worker program that seems to reward illegal behavior."
House Republican officials described the guest-worker issue as a low priority for GOP lawmakers, many of whom have expressed concern that a new program would take jobs from constituents.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company