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Immigration reform on Bush's agenda

President Bush plans to kick off his reelection year by proposing a program that would make it easier for immigrants to work legally in the United States, in what would constitute the most significant changes to immigration law in 18 years, Republican officials said Tuesday.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

President Bush plans to kick off his reelection year by proposing a program that would make it easier for immigrants to work legally in the United States, in what would constitute the most significant changes to immigration law in 18 years, Republican officials said yesterday.

Lobbyists working with the White House said Bush is developing a plan that would allow immigrants to cross the border legally if jobs are waiting for them. The sources said the administration also wants to provide a way for some undocumented workers in the United States to move toward legal status.

Bush will try to make the plan more palatable to conservatives by including stricter entry controls, including increased use of technology at the border and steps toward better enforcement of current visa restrictions and reporting requirements, sources said.

Bush said at his year-end news conference last week that he was preparing to send Congress recommendations for an "immigration policy that helps match any willing employer with any willing employee." He said he is "firmly against blanket amnesty," or a mass legalization. An estimated 8 million undocumented people live in the United States. At least half of them are Mexican, authorities said.

White House aides would not provide details of the proposal, but the Republican officials said it draws on a bill introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would create a Web-based job registry, to be run by the Labor Department. Employers would post job opportunities that would be available first to U.S. workers and then to prospective immigrants, who would be allowed to come under a new visa for temporary workers.

The other half of the program would be what Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge referred to earlier this month as "some kind of legal status" for undocumented workers in this country. The sources said White House officials were more skeptical about this idea than about the temporary-worker program, but they concluded that they needed a response to the large population of undocumented workers for the plan to be credible and for Bush to get credit from Hispanic voters.

Ambitious plan
The blueprint is the most ambitious of its kind since a bill signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 that offered legal status to millions of illegal immigrants who had moved to the United States before 1982 and imposed sanctions on employers who knowingly hired illegal immigrants.

The White House plan is being designed by Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove, in consultation with the domestic policy staff. Sources said the White House's biggest concern is that the new mechanism not penalize people who had followed the law and reward those who had not. McCain's plan, which was introduced in the House by Reps. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), tries to mitigate that problem by creating a new type of visa for previously undocumented workers who would be allowed to live in the United States legally for three years. Then the workers could apply for the temporary worker visa, which would be the path to a green card, or legal permanent residency. That would amount to a three-year advantage for those who entered legally.

The Republican officials said that rather than proposing specific legislation, Bush may issue broad principles that would become a part of the "compassion agenda" for his campaign.

Administration officials said Bush will present his proposal, which is still being refined, in the second week of January, shortly before traveling to Monterrey, Mexico, for a two-day summit of leaders from throughout the Americas.

The proposal is crucial to Bush's relationship with Mexican President Vicente Fox, which was warm in Bush's first year in office but soured after he postponed any relaxation of immigration laws and Fox opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The two leaders began repairing the relationship during a meeting in October at an international economic summit in Thailand.

Bush, who said during his campaign that "family values don't stop at the Rio Grande," had been heading toward seeking an overhaul of immigration laws during his first year in office. On Sept. 6, 2001, Fox said during a White House visit that he wanted broad changes in U.S. immigration law within a year, and Bush said he hoped to "accommodate my friend."

But the plans were scuttled after the terrorist attacks five days later turned the government's attention toward restricting access to the country rather than easing it. Bush said in October 2002 that some noncitizens had "taken advantage" of America's "generous" immigration rules.

Outlook on Hill uncertain
Some conservative lawmakers remain adamantly opposed to any changes that could be portrayed as encouraging immigration, and some members of the Republican congressional leadership are leery of the idea, making its outlook on Capitol Hill uncertain. But presidential advisers said they believe that Hispanic voters, one of the targets for Bush's reelection campaign, will give him credit for pushing for the changes even if nothing is enacted before the election.

Kolbe said in a telephone interview that "there's a mood for the first time since 9/11 that we eventually have to take a look at this problem rather than just hardening the borders." He added, "The president's involvement will be critical."

A House GOP leadership aide, who insisted on anonymity, said the leaders are willing to work with Bush but think it will be a hard sell for rank-and-file members who are concerned that the plan could take jobs away from constituents. "The economic piece of it is now much more of a problem than your traditional xenophobia-type objections," the aide said.

Cecilia Muñoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights organization, said the danger is that Bush will propose something "that's going to sound vast and historic but that he knows can't get enacted next year."

"If what the White House proposes is credible, there's likely to be a warm response," Muñoz said. "As long as we get results, we're not going to be picky about the motive."

The proposal planned by the White House has much in common with plans that have been offered by some of the Democratic presidential candidates, most of which provide for a route to legalization for undocumented workers who have been in the country for five or six years, have a work history and can pass a background check.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) calls his the Earned Legalization and Family Reunification program. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) has called immigration reform "another broken promise" by Bush. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean told the Arizona Republic's editorial board that he favors earned legalization for undocumented workers who have been in the country for some time and have committed no crimes, but he sounded a note of skepticism about a guest-worker program like that proposed by McCain.

The Democrats have frequently highlighted their immigration plans in debates. A leading Bush adviser said that, given the crucial swing vote Hispanics could provide next November, "the White House feels it's got to get its irons in the fire now."