Bush to Frame Migrant Policy

Times Staff Writer

President Bush is preparing to outline significant changes in immigration law this week, including an expanded guest worker program and the opportunity -- with restrictions -- for millions of undocumented workers to get green cards, congressional and business sources said Monday.

The announcement, which could come as early as Wednesday, is expected to be more of a statement of goals and principles than a detailed legislative proposal; it is unclear how hard Bush will press for congressional approval before the November elections.

There are between 8 million and 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, according to U.S. government figures. About 60% are from Mexico, where word of the plan got a hopeful reception. President Vicente Fox has lobbied for such changes since taking office three years ago -- only to see the issue overshadowed by U.S. national security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.


“We welcome any plan to create better conditions for Mexican migrants in the United States,” Fox’s spokesman, Agustin Gutierrez Canet, said Monday -- adding that the Mexican leader wanted to study Bush’s proposal before commenting. “With migration back on the agenda in Washington, the two presidents will be able to renew their talks on this important issue for Mexico.”

Bush also will seek to ensure that guest workers who pay into Social Security can collect benefits through their own country’s retirement program after they return home and reach the requisite age, a congressional staff member familiar with the details said. Such reciprocal arrangements already exist between the United States and several other countries.

“The president will have more to say soon on his approach to matching willing workers with willing employers,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Monday. “There is certainly an economic need that exists.”

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge recently called for some form of legal status for undocumented immigrants in this country. Bush previously has expressed support for a guest worker program, but not a total amnesty.

Rafael Fernandez de Castro, one of Mexico’s leading international relations specialists, said it was “good news for Mexico” that Bush’s plan will include legal status for some undocumented migrants and an expanded guest worker program.

“But the other side of the coin is stricter control at the border -- that’s the way the Bush administration will sell this to American conservatives,” Fernandez de Castro said. “What worries me is that we may end up with a tighter border and nothing else, because Bush needs Congress for the other changes, and that will be tough in an election year.”

Bush is scheduled to meet with Fox in Mexico on Jan. 12-13. At an international summit in October in Thailand, the two leaders agreed to revive the immigration issue. That meeting put an end to a period of strained relations after Mexico opposed the Iraq war.

Business and Latino groups, the main advocates of overhauling immigration law, generally applauded the president’s decision to revive the debate. Members of Congress have introduced several reform plans in the last year, but the White House had been largely silent on immigration since Sept. 11.

“We are happy the administration is getting back in the game,” said Theresa Brown, an immigration policy specialist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The important thing is not so much the details, but that the White House is seriously reengaging.”

Spokesmen for Latino groups, however, emphasized that their support would hinge on the details. Some said they believed that the president would not go far enough in providing green cards for long-term undocumented workers, a key issue.

Under the Bush plan, certain illegal immigrants -- those, for example, who pass background checks and have work experience in the United States -- would receive temporary legal status. But it would take additional years of waiting to receive a green card, which conveys permanent residency and the potential to gain citizenship.

“The real issue is how serious this is,” said Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, a leading Latino advocacy organization. “There needs to be some kind of legalization program for people already living and working in this country.”

Munoz added a challenge: “Are they going to issue a press statement that is going to run in their campaign ads, or are they going to try to flesh out the details and move something forward?”

Most of the Democratic presidential contenders support “earned legalization” programs for undocumented immigrants similar to the plan expected to be offered by the White House -- although in some cases their proposals would create quicker routes to citizenship. The plan offered by Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, for example, calls for citizenship after five years.

Republican opponents of liberalizing immigration law on Monday called Bush’s plan an amnesty and predicted that it would face tough going in Congress.

“You might call it amnesty on the installment plan, you might call it amnesty after some sort of indentured servitude, but it’s amnesty -- and that is the worst type of public policy,” said Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo (R-Colo.).

“If it’s truly an amnesty program, it’s dead on arrival,” said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley). “Even those of us who strongly support George W. Bush don’t agree with him on every issue. I wasn’t elected to be a rubber stamp.”

Bush’s presumed plan is modeled on legislation introduced this summer by three Arizona Republicans: Sen. John McCain and Reps. Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake. That proposal in turn was based on a “grand compromise” that Bush and Fox floated before the terrorist attacks silenced the immigration reform debate.

The Arizonans’ plan would create a new guest worker program, open to businesses in all sectors of the economy and governed by the laws of supply and demand. Businesses in the United States would post jobs on the Internet, after first showing that they had been unable to find workers here. Foreign workers would then be able to apply.

Provided the immigrant workers passed a background check, they could remain in the United States for three years and renew their work permit for another three years. Immigrant workers would be able to switch jobs and to visit their home countries. Spouses could come to the United States only if they too had a job. Guest workers eventually would be able to apply for a green card.

The second part of the McCain-Kolbe-Flake bill involves a legalization program for undocumented workers already here. They would be allowed to come forward and receive temporary guest worker status. After six years, payment of a $1,500 penalty and the completion of other requirements, they would be considered for permanent residence, possibly leading to U.S. citizenship.

The scope of the bill worries some in the administration. “This is a monumental thing,” said one official who asked not to be identified. “How are you going to go out and find millions of people? How long would it take to set up the job registry? This is not something that’s going to cost just a few million dollars.”

No national Latino groups have endorsed the Arizonans’ bill, although several local organizations have. A quick route to citizenship for undocumented immigrants would be unrealistic, said a GOP congressional staffer who works on immigration issues.

“Any immigration reform is going to be a challenge,” said the staffer, who requested anonymity. “Some advocates would prefer immediate green cards, but I’m not sure that the political climate exists for that. After all, these are people who are here because they have broken the law.”


Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Mexico City contributed to this report.