Bush proposes overhaul of U.S. immigration system for workers
Thursday, January 8, 2004
WASHINGTON -- President Bush called Wednesday for a major overhaul of America's immigration system to grant legal status to millions of undocumented workers in the United States, saying the current program is not working.
"Out of common sense and fairness, our laws should allow willing workers to enter our country and fill jobs that Americans are not filling," the president said in an East Room speech to members of Congress, his Cabinet and immigrant advocacy groups.
Bush's election-year proposal is designed to win support among Hispanic voters while helping meet the needs of American employers. His plan would create a temporary worker program for undocumented workers now in the United States and those in other countries who have been offered employment here.
"As a nation that values immigrants and depends on immigrants, we should have immigration laws that work and make us proud," the president said. "Yet today we do not. Instead we see many employers turning to the illegal labor market. We see millions of hard-working men and women condemned to fear and insecurity in a massive undocumented economy.
For homeland security
"Illegal entry across our borders makes more difficult the urgent task of securing the homeland," the president said.
Bush said his proposals, if enacted by Congress, would provide a more compassionate system for immigrants who now live in the shadows of American society.
"Decent, hard-working people will now be protected by labor laws with the right to change jobs, earn fair wages and enjoy the same working conditions that the law requires for American workers," the president said.
While offering new opportunities for undocumented workers, Bush said the proposal would not provide blanket amnesty for foreigners who are in the United States illegally.
"I oppose amnesty, placing undocumented workers on the automatic path to citizenship," he said. "Granting amnesty encourages violation of our laws and perpetuates illegal immigration. America is a welcoming country, but citizenship must not be the automatic reward for violating the laws of America."
Bush said his proposals would strengthen America's borders and make the nation more secure by providing more accountability of those who enter the United States. He said it also would allow law enforcement officials to focus more on real threats.
"America is acting on a basic belief: Our borders should be open to legal travel and honest trade; our borders should be shut and barred tight to criminals, to drug traders, drug traffickers and to criminals and to terrorists."
Bush called Mexican President Vicente Fox to brief him before announcing his proposals.
Bush's proposals break a virtual silence on immigration since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks raised fears about border security.
The president argues that his plan would make America safer by giving the government a better idea of who was crossing U.S. borders, bolster the economy by meeting employers' needs for willing low-wage workers, and fulfill a mandate for compassion by guaranteeing the rights and legitimacy of illegal workers.
By dangling the prospect of legal status to some 8 million illegal immigrants now estimated to be in this country, about half of them Mexican, Bush was granting a top priority of the business community while making his most aggressive move yet to court Hispanic voters -- the nation's fastest-growing electoral bloc.
He won just over one-third of that constituency in 2000 but wants to expand his support in the community to better his chances for re-election in November.
The proposal would provide a way for illegal immigrants who can show they have employment to work legally, although temporarily, in the United States. The new "temporary worker program," which also would include people still in their native countries who have a job lined up in the United States, would not, like the temporary visa programs already in existence that involve mostly technical experts, apply only to a certain sector of the economy or industry. Much of the detail of the president's proposal was to be worked out by Congress in future negotiations with the White House.
For instance, Bush wants to increase the nation's yearly allotment of green cards that allow for permanent U.S. residency, but won't say by how much, the officials said. Around 1 million green cards a year are issued now, though just 140,000 of them are employment-based.
He also wants the workers' first three-year term in the program to be renewable but won't say for how long; he won't set the amount workers should pay to apply for the program; and he won't specify how to enforce the requirement that no American worker wants the job the foreign worker is taking, according to administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Perhaps the biggest unresolved question is how the plan will allow illegal immigrants access, which they do not now have, to the process of applying for green cards, or permanent U.S. residency.
Sensitive to the opposition of many conservatives in Bush's own party to any reward for those who broke the law when they entered the United States, the administration said it is not proposing blanket amnesty for illegals and the program is not linked to the green card process.
But the White House also said that workers accepted into the temporary program could immediately, with an employer's sponsorship, begin applying for a green card. Although these workers would get no advantage over other applicants, an illegal immigrant who attempted to apply now would simply be deported.