||Bush Eyes Legal Status for Alien Workers
WASHINGTON - A plan being proposed by President Bush would give legal status to foreign workers, including millions already toiling in America's underground economy, removing the fear of deportation but not putting them on a fast track toward permanent U.S. residency.
In a speech Wednesday at the White House, Bush will ask Congress to approve changes to immigration policy, saying they would make the country safer by giving officials a better idea of who is crossing the border, bolster the economy by fulfilling employers' needs and protect illegal workers' rights. Also, in a nod to conservatives who oppose any reward to those who enter the United States illegally, Bush is including in his plan incentives to entice the workers to go back to their homelands.
There are an estimated 8 million to 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, perhaps half from Mexico.
Under the Bush proposal, which could smooth relations with Mexico and help Republicans lure Latino voters, foreign workers could apply for legal status for a three-year period if they had U.S. jobs. They could travel to and from the United States and possibly work in the country for additional three-year periods if approved by Congress.
Senior administration officials who outlined the proposal for reporters Tuesday night said the president is calling for an unspecified, but "reasonable," increase in the number of green cards available to workers. However, they said that being part of what is being called the "temporary worker program" would not give foreign workers any advantage to applying for green cards, or permanent residency status — the first step toward obtaining U.S. citizenship.
Immigrant advocacy groups say the president's proposal falls short of comprehensive reform. On the other hand, groups wanting to curb immigration say the president's proposal for a three-year temporary worker plan, rewards foreign workers who broke the law when they entered the United States.
"It's a two-step amnesty," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates strict immigration rules.
"It's not what the folks on the left want, which is a quick green card, but it is an amnesty nonetheless," he said. "It legalizes illegal immigrants and is going to increase the number of green cards so that people will be able to move through the system faster."
"Extremely disappointing," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic immigrant advocacy group.
"It's a serious backtracking to where the president was two years ago when the administration was prepared to provide some kind of path to legal status," she said. "They're proposing to invite people to be guest workers without providing any meaningful opportunity to remain in the United States to become legal permanent residents. It appears to be all about rewarding employers who have been hiring undocumented immigrants while offering almost nothing to the workers themselves."
She said that under current immigration law, foreigners who have violated U.S. laws, including entering the country illegally, can be banned from re-entry for three years to life. The White House was unclear whether it wants to waive that law for illegal immigrants who participate in the temporary worker program.
She also argued that there are only 5,000 green cards a year available for unskilled workers and the wait to get one is about 15 years. Congress would have to increase the number of green cards by hundreds of thousands to accommodate the millions of immigrants in the country illegally who would want to work, Munoz said.
The announcement comes just before Bush's scheduled meeting with Mexico's President Vicente Fox (news - web sites) next week at the Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico. Mexican officials have complained that the administration sought their help to improve border security and combat drug trafficking but failed to respond to pleas for an easing of U.S. immigration policy.
Bush also is expected to broadly discuss giving workers from some countries expanded access to Social Security (news - web sites) benefits, sources familiar with the plan said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Current law generally requires any worker — legal or illegal, citizen or non-citizen — in the United States to have a total of about 10 years of work history to become eligible for Social Security retirement benefits. Under reciprocal agreements the United States has with about 20 nations, some foreign workers are permitted to count work history in their native countries toward the 10 years they need to become eligible for Social Security benefits. These agreements also keep workers and employers from paying taxes into both countries' government retirement systems.
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