Facebook Twitter

Illegals may get amnesty

Bush plan would affect immigrants who have jobs

SHARE Illegals may get amnesty

WASHINGTON — President Bush will announce a sweeping expansion of the nation's immigration laws today that could give legal status to millions of undocumented workers in the United States, senior administration officials said Tuesday night.

Under Bush's proposal, which effectively amounts to an amnesty program for illegal immigrants with jobs in the United States, an undocumented worker could apply for temporary worker status here for an unspecified number of years, with all the employee benefits, like minimum wage and due process, accorded to those legally employed.

Workers who are approved would be permitted to travel freely between the United States and their home countries, the officials said, and would also be permitted to apply for a green card granting permanent residency in the United States.

Administration officials said Bush would also propose increasing the number of green cards issued each year, which is now about 140,000, but they did not provide a specific number. The administration officials, who briefed reporters in a conference call Tuesday night, would only say that Bush would ask for a "reasonable increase."

Under Bush's proposals, workers in other countries could also apply for guest worker status in the United States, provided there was no American to take the job.

Bush's proposal, one administration official said, would "match willing workers with willing employers" and "promote compassion" by fixing what one called "a broken system."

The president's proposals were designed to appeal to Hispanic groups, a critical constituency that the White House has targeted as Bush seeks re-election this year. The proposals will also be embraced by President Vicente Fox of Mexico, who has been lobbying for them for the past three years.

Bush is to meet with Fox at an economic summit next week in Monterrey, Mexico, where immigration will be a significant part of the agenda and Bush's proposals are likely to become a major focus.

But the president's plans are likely face a tough fight in Congress, where conservative Republicans have said they consider programs like the one the president is proposing nothing more than amnesty for people who have broken the law.

Bush's proposal is closely modeled on legislation introduced last summer by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Jim Kolbe and Rep. Jeff Flake, also Republicans from Arizona. The issue of undocumented workers is a major one in the state.

"We are ecstatic that they are addressing this," Flake said in a telephone interview. "We've maintained all along that you have to deal with both sides of the issue — those who want to come to the country and those who are here now. We're very happy to see a realistic approach."

Bush's proposal is in some ways more generous to undocumented workers than is Flake's bill. The legislation, for example, requires that a guest worker wait three years before applying for a green card. But under Bush's proposal, a worker could apply for a green card right away.

Bush's proposals apply to all illegal immigrants in the United States, which officials estimate at 8 million to 14 million people. About 60 percent are thought to be Mexican. No one is certain how many undocumented workers there are among all illegal immigrants, but Fox has said that some 3.5 million of the workers are Mexican.

Bush entered office with immigration reform at the top of his foreign policy agenda, and in the late summer of 2001 various guest worker proposals were under intense discussion by United States and Mexican officials. But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks led to increased concerns about the safety of America's borders and derailed the negotiations.

Under Bush's proposals, an undocumented worker and an employer would have to apply for the guest worker program together, with the employer serving as the sponsor for the worker. There would also be a fee to register for the program, but administration officials would not say how much that would be.

Critics of Bush's proposal note that the White House has not stated how much of an expansion in the number of green cards it will seek. Currently 140,000 are issued annually for workers who are sponsored by employers, with only 10,000 of those set aside for unskilled workers. Unless the White House seeks, and obtains, a huge increase in the number of these green cards, many of the undocumented workers who apply under the president's program will face an extended wait — 10 years to 20 years, by some estimates — to gain permanent residency.

Administration officials acknowledge that the the wait for a green card can take up to six years or longer, meaning that some guest workers who apply for green cards but do not received them would face the prospect of being forced to leave the United States. In that case, critics of the proposal said Tuesday night, workers would be better off remaining illegal and staying indefinitely in the United States, rather than revealing themselves to immigration officials when they sign up for a program that may, these critics assert, lead to their deportation.

"They're asking people to sign up for a program that is more likely to ensure their departure than ensure them permanent residency," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president of National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy organization.

Groups opposed to increased immigration also criticized the president's proposal. "It's an amnesty, no matter how much they dance around the fact," said Mark Krikorian, executive direction of the Center on Immigration Studies, an anti-immigration organization. "It's legalizing illegal immigrants."

Other critics worry that the guest worker program could lead to exploitation of immigrant workers. "If you are dependent on an employer filing a petition on your behalf, that employer has a tremendous club over you," said one person who was briefed on the president's proposal and spoke on condition of anonymity.

But an administration official said that the plan would protect the rights of undocumented workers, "who now live in the shadows, and are fearful of coming out of the shadows."

There are a number of limited guest worker programs already in existence in the United States, but they are targeted at highly skilled workers in technology, who typically come from India, China and Eastern Europe.

Bush will also argue, administration officials said, that his policies will make the country safer by giving authorities a better idea of who is in the country and crossing its borders.