MIAMI BEACH -- Hoping to revive the stalled debate over immigration reform, the leading House Democrat said Monday that his party soon would introduce legislation that would allow millions of illegal immigrants to move toward U.S. citizenship.
In a speech here to the National Council of La Raza, a leading Latino group, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., said that under the Democratic plan, undocumented immigrants who have been in America for at least five years and worked for at least two years could become legal residents if they pass a background check by the FBI and local law enforcement.
"These proposals reward hard work with fair play, and help us in our fight against terrorism," Gephardt said.
Although details remain to be determined, Gephardt said, the plan would include a new program to import temporary workers from countries such as Mexico -- a top business priority.
The notion of combining a temporary worker program with an "earned legalization" follows the model that President Bush floated last year in negotiations with Mexico. But, amid intense resistance to any form of legalization from many congressional Republican conservatives, Bush began to back away from the idea late last summer.
Gephardt's announcement marks the first major effort to revive the process. The idea still faces intense resistance from those who consider any path toward legalization for illegal immigrants a form of amnesty that rewards law-breaking. And the terrorist attacks gave opponents a powerful new argument in their case, raising security concerns about legalizing foreigners who illegally entered the United States.
Negative reaction to the proposal was swift.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies -- a group that supports reduced immigration -- called it an "astonishingly bad idea." He added: "It mocks the rule of law. It rewards lawbreakers. It will encourage more illegal immigration."
Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo, R-Colo., a leading congressional foe of efforts to liberalize legalization rules, dismissed the proposal as "a backdoor amnesty plan" and a "political ploy" aimed at gaining Latino support for Democrats.
Gephardt said the plan would be introduced within two weeks. He acknowledged it has little prospect of passing this year.