San Francisco Chronicle - January 8, 2004
Bush seeks new rights for illegal immigrants
Undocumented workers could apply to live in U.S. for 3 years
Tyche Hendricks and Vanessa Hua, Chronicle Staff Writers
President Bush proposed a significant immigration reform plan Wednesday (Jan. 7, 2004) that would provide temporary legal status to millions of undocumented immigrant workers in the United States, saying "America is a stronger and better nation because of the hard work and the faith and the entrepreneurial spirit of immigrants."
The plan, if it is approved by Congress, would allow workers who are in this country illegally to pay a fee and register in a temporary worker program if they can prove they are employed here. It would also allow foreigners to come to the United States as temporary workers if they have a job offer from an employer who demonstrates that no U.S. worker could be found for the job.
Temporary worker status would last three years and could be renewed for another three. The immigrant workers could apply for legal permanent residence, or a "green card," but would not get preference over other applicants.
Currently, 140,000 green cards are issued each year and the wait can take years. Bush said he wanted to increase the annual number of green cards, but did not say by how much. Green card holders are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.
The proposal was hailed by business leaders, but criticized by both conservatives who want a crackdown on illegal immigration and by immigrant advocates and labor groups who want a path to legalization for the estimated 8 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
Though Bush insisted the plan was not an amnesty because it did not offer an automatic path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, groups that favor stricter limits on immigration said the president was merely playing with words and condemned the plan as injuring U.S. workers.
"They seem to be wanting to open the American labor market to everyone on the planet," said Mark Krikorian, a spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. "The construction worker making $16 an hour will be replaced by the Bangladeshi construction worker making $6 an hour. This is an additional cudgel to push wages down."
Eliseo Medina, executive vice president for the Service Employees International Union, which represents an overwhelmingly immigrant workforce, said he was glad the president was acknowledging that the country's immigration system is broken. But he added that he feared the plan would lead to the exploitation of immigrant workers.
"We're concerned that we don't have a program that creates a permanent subclass of workers who will be in a temporary worker status for years at a time, and then their visa will expire and they'll be obligated to leave this country that has become their home," he said.
Workers and activists at the San Francisco Day Labor Program -- which assists people in finding jobs -- were wary of the proposal, fearing that it was a re-election ploy that could lead to worker exploitation and did not guarantee permanent residency. Inside one trailer, worker leaders called out in Spanish the contributions of immigrant workers: "cheap labor," "taxes," "rents," "consumers."
With all of the Democratic presidential contenders proposing to change immigration law, Bush has been under some political pressure to come up with his own plan, said Harley Shaiken, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley. "The timing is very clear," said Shaiken. "This is the opening of an election year and the proposal is viewed as key to attracting Latino votes."