Tuesday, May 4, 2004

Three Democratic lawmakers yesterday proposed a broad legalization for illegal aliens that would allow many of those who have lived here for five years instant legal status.

The bill, which also includes a new temporary-worker program, is much broader than what President Bush proposed in January and broader than most other immigration bills pending in Congress.

“It is in the national interest to have all those here seeking the American dream to be able to fully participate and contribute to American society,” said Rep. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “Those who bend their back every day picking the fruits and vegetables that end up on our kitchen tables are part of America. Those who, through the sweat of their labor, dig the ditches that lay the infrastructure for the future are part of America.”

He is sponsoring the bill along with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, and Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat.

Illegal aliens who have lived in the United States for five years and worked and paid taxes for two years would win permanent legal residence, or a green card, after passing a criminal background check. Under the new temporary-worker program, those overseas could take part in a new, two-year visa, of which 250,000 would be issued a year, with a chance for permanent residence at the end.

The bill would also abolish the 10-year ban, which says those who have lived in the U.S. illegally for a year and want to apply for a green card must first return to their home country for a decade.

With Hispanic voters being courted during this election year, and Mexicans making up a large part of the illegal work force in the United States, both parties are looking at immigration legislation.

Mr. Bush in January proposed his own guest-worker program, which allows those already here illegally and those overseas to apply for a three-year work visa. The visa is renewable an unspecified number of times. Mr. Bush also proposed raising the number of green cards.

But Mr. Kennedy and other Democrats said that with no definite connection between the guest-worker program and permanent status, illegal aliens identifying themselves under Mr. Bush’s plan would risk being deported at the end of their temporary work period.

Mr. Kennedy said his bill will help national security because it will convert the flow of immigrants at the border from illegal to legal and allow “immigration-enforcement agents to focus their resources on terrorists and criminals attempting to enter the country.”

Several Republicans who have proposed their own, more limited guest-worker programs, said the Kennedy plan is unworkable.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, whose plan sets a time limit for guest workers and creates incentives for them to leave at the end of their time, said the Democrats’ new bill “does little beyond encouraging further illegal immigration and does nothing to re-establish respect for the law.”

Still, Don Stewart, a spokesman for Mr. Cornyn, said the new proposal shows the immigration debate has shifted somewhat in the last few years.

“Democrats are moving away from their outright amnesty to any and all, regardless of how long you’ve been here, and at least moving toward some restrictions on their amnesty bills,” Mr. Stewart.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said he won’t consider either Democrats’ broad proposal or any of the other similar ones pending.

“We’re not going to address immigration in the comprehensive manner that was initially proposed by the White House,” he told reporters, although he did say “some element of immigration” will be taken up before the end of this year.

Possibilities include expanding the cap on seasonal-worker permits used in particular by summertime resorts and fishing industries, or passing a specific guest-worker program for agricultural workers, called the AgJobs Bill.

That bill, which allows agricultural workers a path to citizenship and would legalize many workers here already, has 61 sponsors, the number needed for overcoming procedural hurdles. Sponsors include more than half of Senate Republicans and more than two-thirds of Senate Democrats.

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