Tuesday, January 6, 2004

President Bush today will propose a broad temporary-work program that will make more than 8 million illegal aliens eligible to stay in the United States without penalty and eventually to apply for permanent legal residence and citizenship.

The White House also will call for an increase in the size of the permanent-resident program, prompting one immigration critic to brand the proposal “a two-step amnesty.”

Illegal immigrants who can prove they have jobs can stay in the country legally for three years. In that period, they can bring family members to the United States and enjoy rights now reserved for Americans and for foreigners with permanent-resident status, including Social Security benefits.

“It will protect the rights of illegal workers who now live in the shadows and are fearful of coming out of the shadows for fear of deportation,” a White House official said yesterday.

“They will now enjoy the same protections that American workers have with respect to wages and employment rights and the like. … If they complain about a practice, they’re not going to be deported, because they’re legal.”

The White House took pains last night to deny the notion that while the illegal aliens who have sneaked into the country and use false identifications to hold U.S. jobs will face no penalties whatsoever, the program is not a “blanket amnesty.”

“There is no linkage,” a White House official said, “between participation in this program and a green card,” a legal document that lets foreigners reside in the United States permanently and apply for citizenship after five years.

Mr. Bush’s guest-worker proposal, which Congress must approve, would be “temporary in nature. One must go home upon conclusion of the program.”

During the three-year period, the aliens would have permission to leave the country and come back as needed, and could renew their three-year involvement in the program, the official said.

“It’s a two-step amnesty,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates strict immigration rules.

“It’s not what the folks on the left want, which is a quick green card, but it is an amnesty nonetheless,” he said. “It legalizes illegal immigrants and is going to increase the number of green cards so that people will be able to move through the system faster.”

One Bush official said the new program would require the federal government to provide “a reasonable increase in the number of green cards.” The number of employer-based green cards is 140,000 annually; the Bush proposal would cover an estimated 8 million to 14 million illegal aliens.

The president will release his proposal just days before meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox. Some have suggested that Mr. Bush’s proposal was an election-year bid for Hispanic votes.

But the official said the two programs — temporary-work status and permanent residence — essentially will be “two separate doors” foreign workers must walk through.

“The temporary-worker program is a way to work here legally short of the United States citizenship, under a certain set of conditions. … And then door number two is the normal naturalization process, which includes permanent legal status. We’re trying not to blur those two things together.”

While acquiring a green card can take as long as six years, the official said illegal aliens can re-enroll for the new Bush program, which means that many will be able to remain in the United States until they get permanent-resident status.

Illegal aliens who enroll in the program will have no fear of deportation and can come and go between the United States and their country of citizenship “as they wish,” a White House official said.

But the aliens will be required to hold jobs while they are in the United States and prove to federal officials that they are gainfully employed.

“We believe that this is an attractive program which will reduce the number of illegals here,” said the official, who briefed reporters in a conference call.

In addition, those outside the country wanting to work in the United States could sign up for jobs, if they exist. Employers first would have to show that the jobs cannot be filled by Americans.

When asked during the call how the worker and employer would prove that no Americans desired the job, one of the White House aides present said the fact that the job is open will be assumed to mean that the “marketplace” had determined that.

Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic immigrant-advocacy group, called the proposal “extremely disappointing.”

“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.”

• James G. Lakely contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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