President Bush Wednesday proposed some of the most sweeping changes in immigration policy in almost two decades, calling for an expanded guest-worker program and the ability for millions of undocumented immigrants to receive legal status.
Supporters of the plan - backed by the business community, which has a large appetite for low-wage workers - say it would enhance security by offering the US' 10 million illegal immigrants an incentive to come out of the shadows. That would allow the Homeland Security Department to focus on going after noncitizens who intend harm.
Immigration reform has long been on the nation's policy agenda, but major change is hard to effect, particularly in an election year. Both parties are angling hard for the Latino vote, the fastest-growing segment of the US electorate. But even beyond the political dimension, the president's proposal would face an uphill battle in Congress.
Under the plan, undocumented workers who gained temporary-worker status would enjoy the rights and protections of legal workers. They could also apply for green cards, which convey permanent residency and, potentially, citizenship.
But even immigrant-rights groups are not entirely satisfied. One concern is that if the plan does not greatly expand the number of green cards issued annually, undocumented workers could face an extended wait. If their guest-worker status expired before they received a green card, they would have to leave the country.
"I think it's safe to say there are some politics at play here," says Cecilia Muñoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza. "But this is not an issue to be playing politics with. We really need a solution." Ms. Muñoz says there are ways to measure whether the White House is serious about immigration reform or is simply angling for the Latino vote. Introducing a bill instead of a proposal and backing other immigration-reform bills in Congress are two of those ways.
Anti-immigration groups criticize the initiative for its potential to hurt US workers. They suggest it wouldn't stop future illegal immigration - and may even encourage it. "From our perspective, American workers have become sacrificial lambs for the Bush reelection campaign," says David Ray, with the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington. "We are in the middle of a jobless recovery.... To push for a guest-worker program at a time like this is unfathomable."
The announcement comes five days before Bush meets with Mexican President Vicente Fox in Monterrey, Mexico, at an economic summit. The issue is especially important to Mexico because almost 60 percent of illegal immigrants in the US come from there. Bush was preparing a major initiative on immigration reform in 2001, but after 9/11, had to shelve it.
Inside the homes of millions of undocumented immigrants, the talk isn't about politics, but about the potential for new lives out of the shadows. Rumors about the proposal were circulating even before the media reported it. "Everyone is very excited," says Fernando, an illegal immigrant living in Houston. "It would be perfect for so many of us."
Three years ago, Fernando left Mexico City - and his wife and son - and headed for Arizona. He came to work, he says, because opportunities were scarce back home. Today he spends 10 hours a day, six days a week, at a construction job here. He makes $8 an hour and sends $100 back to his family in Mexico each month. "I don't mind working hard if it will help my family," he says in Spanish.
Fernando's is a common refrain. The majority of the estimated 10 million illegal immigrants say they are here to work, and are happy with low-skill, low-paying jobs that most Americans don't want. Understanding this dynamic, Bush has said on several occasions that he wants to "match willing foreign workers with willing US employers when no Americans can be found to fill those jobs."
His proposal is similar to one introduced this summer by Arizona Republican lawmakers Jeff Flake, Jim Kolbe, and John McCain. It would create a new guest-worker program, where foreigners would apply for jobs posted on the Internet, and allow those already here to apply for a newly created visa, which could be then used to obtain a green card.
Many undocumented workers have watched proposals come and go, with little change, and are skeptical of this one.
Sitting daintily on the edge of a couch in a wealthy neighborhood of Houston, Maria leans forward when she speaks of the possibility of getting legal documents.
"I miss my family, but I haven't been able to return because I don't have my papers," says the Guatemalan, who works as a nanny. "I would like to see them again."
Maria made the long trek to Houston by herself five years ago. It took her a month and 15 days to cross the Arizona border, and $3,000 in payment to a smuggler. She says it was a horrible, exhausting experience - one she would never want to repeat.
At first she lived her life in the US afraid of getting caught, but she has grown used to being illegal and knows how to live under the radar. She sends $100 back to her parents in Guatemala each month.
In her mind, Maria is already legal. But upon hearing of Bush's proposal, she "prays to God" that it will apply to her. "We don't want to cause problems. We just want to work," she says in Spanish.
Indeed, many immigration experts say the plan would actually enhance national security by bringing millions of illegal immigrants into the sunlight.
"We'd have a better idea of who's here. And those millions of people would have a greater incentive to cooperate with law enforcement," says Dan Griswold, an immigration expert at the CATO Institute in Washington. In addition, he says, "it would start to drain the swamp of document fraud and people-smuggling at the border that facilitates illegal immigration." The result would be the government's ability to redirect resources toward people coming here to do harm, he says.
Sipping a latte at a Houston coffee house, Raul, an Argentine who came here illegally, also worries that Bush's proposal is more flash than substance - simply a matter of attracting Latino votes.
But if it's for real, he says, it will be "the greatest thing that Bush has done for the country. It will be a recognition that these are hard-working people, and not second-class human beings." Raul came on a six-month tourist visa eight years ago, and never returned.
He claims he tried to obtain documents legally, but was unsuccessful. "I tried to do it the right way," he says. When that failed, he got a fake social security number and began working a variety of jobs. Today, he is a full-time artist who believes he's just as American as he is Argentinean.
"I learned to speak English, I learned the history of this country. I made friends and built a life here. I learned how to dream and how to be strong," he says. "I feel like I have paid my dues."
Even supporters of Bush's proposal readily acknowledge the political dimension of the initiative. "This is part of the 'compassionate conservative' portfolio, specifically to reach out to Hispanic Americans and present a more inclusive Republican Party," says a senior republican Senate aide. "In some ways, [Bush] is able to do this because he has the base locked down. There will be, on the margin, some voices in opposition, but I think he can get away with it because he's just so popular."
The aide notes that the initiative is potentially worth votes in states like California, the top electoral-vote state, as well as Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, and even Michigan, where there's a large immigrant population. The last three states are key battlegrounds in the presidential race.
• Staff writer Linda Feldmann contributed to this report from Washington.
Some details of the immigration reform proposed by President Bush, according to senior administration officials Wednesday:
• The new "temporary worker program" would allow either an illegal immigrant already in the United States or someone abroad to apply for the right to work legally in the country for a three-year term that could be renewed. The White House is not saying how long the term could be extended or how many times it could be renewed.
• An applicant for the program already in the US must pay an unspecified registration fee and show he or she is currently employed. Applicants still in their home countries won't have to pay a fee, but must have a job lined up.
• The employer must show no Americans wanted the job.
• Temporary workers would get all the same protections afforded US workers.
• The workers must return to their home countries at the end of the term.
• Dependents of the temporary workers would be allowed in the US if the workers could prove they could support their family. The workers would be allowed to move freely back and forth between the US and their home country.
• The White House also is calling for an unspecified increase in the number of green cards allowed to be granted annually.
• The plan also would provide incentives for workers to return to their home countries, including allowing them to collect retirement benefits there based on Social Security taxes paid in the US.
• Congress would have to write legislation for the changes to take effect.