IMAGE: President Bush addressed lawmakers and immigration activists at the White House.
NBC News
President Bush addressed lawmakers and immigration activists at the White House.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 1/7/2004 8:28:44 PM ET 2004-01-08T01:28:44

President Bush called for a major overhaul of America’s immigration system Wednesday to grant legal status to millions of undocumented workers in the United States, saying the current program was 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 address in the East Room to members of Congress, his Cabinet and immigrant advocacy groups.

Critics of the plan said it amounted to an amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Bush’s election-year proposal is designed to help meet the needs of U.S. employers and to woo Latino voters.

“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."

“Illegal entry across our borders makes more difficult the urgent task of securing the homeland,” he said.

Bush said his proposals, if enacted by Congress, would provide a more compassionate system for immigrants who now live in the shadows of U.S. 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.

The plan would, he said:

Details to come
Many of the specifics of the president’s proposal remain to be worked out by Congress in negotiations with the White House.

For instance, Bush wants to increase the nation’s yearly allotment of green cards, which allow for permanent U.S. residency, but did not say by how much. About 1 million green cards a year are issued now, although just 140,000 of them are employment-based.

Bush also wants the workers’ first three-year term in the program to be renewable, but he has not said for how long. Nor has he set the amount workers should pay to apply for the program or specify how to enforce the requirement that no U.S. worker want the job the foreign worker is taking.

Perhaps the biggest unresolved question is how the plan would allow illegal immigrants access, which they do not now have, to the process of applying for green cards, or permanent U.S. residency.

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Sensitive to the opposition of many conservatives in his own party to any reward for those who broke the law when they entered the United States, Bush stated flatly, “I oppose amnesty.” But he also said 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 tried to apply now would simply be deported.

If permanent residency were not granted before the worker’s term was up — a likely outcome given the long backlog of applicants and the relatively small percentage of applicants who receive green cards every year — the person would have to return home to apply from there.

Reaction from interest groups
As a result, even though program participants would be allowed to have dependents with them and be able to move freely between their country and the United States, activists on both sides of the immigrant issue said the president’s proposal was lacking.

“The president's proposal rewards people who have broken the law,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus. “That's bad policy.”

“It is dangerous to offer additional incentives and rewards for illegal immigration while giving only lip service to border security,” Tancredo added.

Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., a member of the International Relations Committee, predicted that Bush would have trouble winning approval in Congress.

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“This clearly is an amnesty. It provides not only amnesty but a reward for people who committed a felony by coming here illegally,” Gallegly told Reuters.

“There will be substantial opposition from Republicans, Democrats and millions of ordinary Americans once they realize what’s involved,” he said.

Pro-immigrant advocates, on the other hand, said the proposal fell short of comprehensive reform.

“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.”

Even some who might benefit from the proposal questioned Bush‘s announcement.

“I have to relate it to something about the campaign,” said Mahonrry Hidalgo, a day laborer in Freehold, N.J. “It’s going to help, but it’s not the solution we want.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for its part, supports providing more stability for illegal immigrants.

“We have 10.5 million illegal workers in the United States right now," Chamber President Thomas Donohue said. "If they went home, we’d have to shut down the country.”

And Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, welcomed the proposal, saying, “I commend President Bush for this constructive step toward important and, frankly, overdue immigration reform.”

Political, diplomatic benefits
Left unsaid during the president’s speech were the political dividends White House advisers hoped the proposal would pay.

By dangling the prospect of legal status to 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 Latino voters. He won just more than a third of that constituency in 2000 but wants to expand his support in the community to better his chances for re-election in November.

Polls have shown support for allowing illegal immigrants to obtain legal status. In a 2002 survey by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation, 69 percent of all respondents and 90 percent of Latinos said they would favor such a program, while 28 percent of all respondents and 8 percent of Latinos opposed it.

Announcement of the plan also came just before Bush was scheduled to meet with Mexican President Vicente Fox on Monday at the Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico. Bush briefed Fox on Wednesday shortly before announcing his proposal.

Relations between the two leaders grew frosty as immigration reforms sought by Fox stalled after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, but Fox welcomed Bush’s plan Wednesday, saying it would recognize the contribution Mexican workers made to the United States.

The temporary worker program would mean Mexican workers “can have all the rights that any other worker in that country has even though they do not have American citizenship or documents at the moment,” Fox said at a school ceremony in Mexico City to mark the start of a new education term.

NBC’s David Gregory and Tracie Potts, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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