- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2004

President Bush yesterday proposed an expansive new immigration program that would allow millions of illegal aliens in the United States to apply for immediate legal working status, as he called on Congress to increase the number of foreigners allowed into America.

“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 East Room speech to members of Congress, his Cabinet and immigrant advocacy groups.

Under the program, which needs congressional approval, millions of foreigners who illegally have entered the United States and are using fake or stolen Social Security numbers would face no penalty and could remain in the country for an unspecified number of years as long as they hold jobs no American wants.

While the president said the program would “provide incentives for temporary, foreign workers to return permanently to their home countries,” opponents say it amounts to a blanket amnesty because millions of illegal aliens would enjoy all the employee rights, such as due process and Social Security benefits, given to those legally employed.

But Mr. Bush said the program provides no amnesty because illegal immigrants will not be given permanent residence status or special consideration for citizenship, although program enrollees will be able to pursue both avenues.

“I oppose amnesty, placing undocumented workers on the automatic path to citizenship. Granting amnesty encourages the violation of our laws, and perpetuates illegal immigration,” Mr. Bush said. “America is a welcoming country, but citizenship must not be the automatic reward for violating the laws of America.”

Still, Mr. Bush said he believes the United States should increase the number of foreigners allowed into the country. About 1 million green cards — a legal document allowing foreigners to reside in the country permanently and apply for citizenship after five years — are issued annually, though just 140,000 of them are employment-based.

“The citizenship line, however, is too long, and our current limits on legal immigration are too low. My administration will work with the Congress to increase the annual number of green cards that can lead to citizenship,” he said.

Under his proposal, the federal government would create and oversee a temporary program for undocumented workers in the United States and those in other countries who have been offered employment here. The administration expects up to 8 million illegal immigrants already in the United States to apply for the right to work legally in the country for a three-year term that could be renewed.

Applicants would pay an unspecified registration fee and must prove employment to join the program. Those still in their home countries won’t have to pay a fee, but must have a job lined up, and eventually, only people outside the United States would be allowed to join the program.

Mr. Bush said the program is not intended to draw workers — illegally or legally — to the United States.

“This program expects temporary workers to return permanently to their home countries after their period of work in the United States has expired,” he said. The plan would offer incentives for the workers to return to their home countries, including the promise of access to retirement benefits and new tax savings accounts, he said.

But while they remain in the program, temporary workers would receive the same protections afforded American workers and would be allowed to bring family members to the United States if they could prove they can support them.

“As a nation that values immigrants and depends on immigrants, we should have immigration laws that work and make us proud,” Mr. Bush said. “Yet today we do not. Instead we see many employers turning to the illegal labor market. We see millions of hardworking men and women condemned to fear and insecurity in a massive undocumented economy.”

Democratic critics charged that Mr. Bush was proposing the plan with hopes of winning more Hispanic votes in his bid for a second term.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and a key member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will consider the proposal, called it “woefully inadequate” and said it “falls far short of being the serious reform our country needs to fix our broken immigration system.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said he will try to move the president’s proposal through the Senate, calling it “a positive step towards improving our immigration laws and ensuring a fair and compassionate system for our nation’s immigrants.”

But its chances are slim, given that most Democratic leaders oppose the plan for not going far enough, while many Republicans said it amounts to amnesty, which they cannot support.

Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican and a member of the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration, said Mr. Bush risks alienating parts of his own party.

“I just don’t think it’s good politics to split the party, and I don’t think it’s good politics to set aside the rule of law for something that looks like a political decision,” he said. “If we don’t have open borders today, we’d certainly have open borders with the president’s proposal.”

And Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, called the proposal“amnesty, plain and simple.”

“With his new plan, the president would make it far easier for would-be terrorists to exploit new immigration loopholes,” he said. “We ought to be working to shut down potential advantages for terrorists; instead, the Bush administration’s immigration scheme would create new ones.”

Mr. Bush, though, saidaside from taking illegal aliens out of “the shadows of American life,” the program would make Americans safer.

“Illegal entry across our borders makes more difficult the urgent task of securing the homeland,” the president said. “America is acting on a basic belief: Our borders should be open to legal travel and honest trade; our borders should be shut and barred tight to criminals, to drug traders, drug traffickers and to criminals and to terrorists.”

Mr. Bush, who leaves next week to attend the Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, called Mexican President Vicente Fox to brief him before announcing his proposals. Mr. Fox has expressed his displeasure over Mr. Bush’s decision to abandon a planned policy overhaul after the September 11 attacks raised fears about border security.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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