updated 1/7/2004 2:51:12 PM ET 2004-01-07T19:51:12

Juan Muniz crosses the border from Mexico, green card in hand, every day to work in an El Paso department store.

He worries that a proposal by President Bush to make it easier for foreign nationals to work in the United States will mean more competition for already scarce jobs.

“We just want one job that pays well,” Muniz’s wife, Guadalupe, said Tuesday as the couple returned to Juarez, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso.

Under Bush’s proposal , 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 U.S. and possibly work for additional three-year periods.

Bush says the new rules would bolster the economy, protect illegal workers’ rights, and make the country safer by giving a clearer picture of who is crossing the border.

There are an estimated 8 to 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, perhaps half from Mexico.

“It would allow people to flow back and forth that are adopted residents,” said Michael Breitinger, executive director of the El Paso Central Business Association. “I think informally, that’s going on anyway.”

However, Wayne Cornelius, director of the University of California’s Center for Comparative Immigration Studies in San Diego, said the program will have to provide incentives to get workers to participate.

“The existing, informal, unauthorized labor market with job offers being arranged before migration by relatives and friends already working in the U.S. works very efficiently and to the benefit of both workers and employers,” Cornelius said. “What’s in the new system for them?”

Doubts about plan
Claudia Smith, director of California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, an immigrant advocacy group in Oceanside, Calif., doubts a guest worker program would substantially reduce the number of people who die crossing the border.

“It will have some impact but there is no way (a) guest worker program can be big enough to meet the needs of Mexicans seeking work or the demand in the United States for undocumented labor,” she said.

Some immigrant advocates said the most important issue is not so much making it easier for more people to immigrate, but granting legal status to migrants who are already here.

“That’s step No. 1 and that needs to be first on the list,” said the Rev. Robin Hoover, founder of Tucson organization Humane Borders.

No matter what the arguments for and against, many Mexicans have one simple hope — that the Bush plan will bring more jobs.

“It’s good,” said Christina Flores, a resident of Juarez who was shopping in El Paso. “There are many people who need to work (in the United States) because the factories have closed in Juarez.”

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