Bush unveils reform on visas

Millions of illegal residents could hold jobs for 3 years

Mexican workers most affected

Conservatives in GOP, Democrats assail proposal

January 08, 2004|By Bob Kemper and Hugh Dellios | Bob Kemper and Hugh Dellios,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - President Bush proposed sweeping changes yesterday to U.S. immigration law that could allow millions living and working illegally in America to obtain legitimate jobs and become U.S. citizens.

Bush - surrounded by Hispanic activists and immigration advocates at the White House - proposed a three-year visa program to allow workers from Mexico and elsewhere to cross the border legally, and repeatedly, between their homeland and jobs in the United States.

Reaction to Bush's proposal from Republican lawmakers and Mexican officials was cautiously supportive, while Democrats lambasted the election-year reforms as insufficient and politically motivated.

Bush insisted he opposes blanket amnesty for the estimated 8 million to 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, but he did lay out plans to allow those undocumented workers to get legitimate temporary jobs and apply for citizenship without fear of deportation. While the program would be open to all illegal immigrants, it would most affect Mexicans, estimated to make up about half of such visitors.

"America's a strong and better nation because of the hard work and the faith and the entrepreneurial spirit of immigrants," Bush said.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican whose committee oversees immigration matters, called Bush's plan a "constructive step toward important and ... overdue immigration reform."

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, said Democrats would introduce an alternative reform plan when Congress reconvenes this month. "The administration has focused primarily on creating a temporary worker program that fails to address many of our immigration challenges," Daschle said.

In Mexico, President Vicente Fox's administration welcomed Bush's proposal but expressed skepticism that it would add up to the wide-reaching immigration pact that Mexican leaders have been demanding.

Fox, who discussed the plan in a phone call with Bush before the White House announcement, called the proposal "interesting" and said it would "clearly recognize the worth of the Mexican men and women" working in the United States.

Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Derbez gave a more critical assessment, saying the two nations need to do a lot of work to improve the proposal.

In Mexico and Washington, observers said Bush, whose proposal took the form of broad principles rather than detailed legislative language, could have a hard time pushing his plan through Congress in an election year, with opposition coming from both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican who is visiting Mexico and other Latin American countries this week, played down hopes that Bush's proposal would pass. "I don't want to exaggerate expectations," he told Mexican lawmakers Tuesday.

Even if it is enacted, some questioned how effective it would be in curbing illegal immigration. "I don't see many U.S. employers going through all these processes, especially if they think nothing is going to happen to them and they can continue paying low salaries to these workers," said Jorge Chabat, a Mexican expert on cross-border relations.

Complete overhaul

At yesterday's announcement, Bush said the current immigration system, which has prompted many Mexicans to risk their lives crossing treacherous waters and desert, needs a complete overhaul. It not only shortchanges immigrants, he said, it also hampers U.S. businesses that rely on immigrant labor.

"Our nation needs an immigration system that serves the American economy and reflects the American dream," the president said. "Out of common sense and fairness, our laws should allow willing workers to enter our country and fill jobs that Americans are not filling."

To accommodate the expected surge in immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship under the proposed reforms, Bush said, the federal government would increase the number of green cards - which allow permanent resident status while the holder awaits citizenship - though he did not specify by how much. About 140,000 job-related green cards are issued each year.

Bush's proposal faces stiff opposition from conservative Republicans in Congress, who have objected to similar reforms on the grounds that they reward immigrants who broke the law.

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, added: "The Bush administration would have us believe that this move toward legalizing the status of illegal immigrants - lawbreakers - will curb the flow of illegal immigration and enhance our border security. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Pay a penalty

In part to address such concerns, Bush went to some lengths to distinguish his program from an amnesty program that would grant all illegal residents citizenship.

Bush said illegal immigrants would have to pay a penalty fee of sorts before they would be allowed to apply for a temporary worker visa. He did not specify the size of the fee, but legislation offered in July by three Republican Arizona lawmakers - Sen. John McCain, Rep. Jim Kolbe and Rep. Jeff Flake - set a penalty of $1,500.

Democrats charged that Bush was resurrecting the immigration issue at the start of an election year only to bolster his standing with Latino and moderate voters. Any meaningful reform, they said, had to provide more opportunity for immigrants to come to the U.S., stay and become citizens.

Bob Kemper and Hugh Dellios write for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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