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Big Change For Illegal Aliens?

Immigration law - one of the most contentious subjects in this nation of immigrants, and one under increased scrutiny since the Sept. 11 terror attacks - is back on the front burner.

President Bush has invited representatives of various immigration advocacy groups to the White House today to be on hand as he delivers a potentially historic speech proposing a major overhaul of U.S. policy on immigration - especially laws affecting illegal aliens.

Mr. Bush is proposing that Congress enact legislation to create a temporary worker program, in which citizens of other countries who do not have visas to be in the U.S. - those who would like to come here, and those who are already here illegally - could apply for a status that would allow them to be here legally for at least three years.

Application is dependent upon having a firm offer of employment, from an employer who can demonstrate that no Americans want the job.

The White House is not saying how long the term could be extended or how many times it could be renewed, but incentives to get workers to return to their homelands - including access to retirement funds - are said to be part of the plan.

What isn't part of the plan is any kind of blanket amnesty for illegal aliens - strongly opposed by conservatives as a reward for breaking the law. It also doesn't include an easier way to obtain a green card - the document that immigrants need to legally work in the U.S. - although the total number of green cards in circulation might increase somewhat.

There are an estimated 8 to 10 million illegal aliens in the U.S. - about half of them Mexican - in a wide variety of low wage occupations, including farm workers, restaurant workers and maids.

Mr. Bush is expected to argue that his plan would make America safer by giving the government a better idea of who is crossing U.S. borders, bolster the economy by meeting employers' need for willing low-wage workers, and fulfill a mandate for compassion by guaranteeing the rights and legitimacy of illegal workers.

Workers participating in the new program would be allowed to move freely between the U.S. and their homeland, and dependents of temporary workers would also be allowed in the U.S. - if the workers could prove that they could support the dependents.

That's according to senior administration officials who briefed reporters Tuesday.

Likely to be left unsaid during the president's speech are the political dividends White House advisers hope to collect.

By dangling the prospect of legal status for illegal immigrants who are already working here, President Bush is addressing a top priority of the business community while making his most aggressive move yet to court Latino voters. He won just over one-third of that constituency in 2000 but wants to expand his support in the community to better his chances for re-election in November.

Many of the details of the president's proposal are to be worked out by Congress in future negotiations with the White House.

For instance, Bush wants to increase the nation's yearly allotment of green cards that allow for permanent U.S. residency, but won't say by how much, the officials said. Approximately 140,000 green cards a year are issued now.

Bush administration officials have said repeatedly that the new program being proposed would not be linked to the green card process.

But they also said that workers accepted into the temporary program could immediately, with an employer's sponsorship, begin applying for a green card. Although these workers would get no advantage over other applicants, an illegal immigrant who attempted to apply now would simply be deported.

If permanent residency were not granted before the worker's term was up - a likely outcome given the long backlog of applicants and the relatively small percentage of applicants who receive green cards each year - the person would have to return to his or her home country to apply from there.

"Extremely disappointing," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza. "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."

Wayne Cornelius, director of the University of California's Center for Comparative Immigration Studies in San Diego, is similarly skeptical.

"The existing, informal, unauthorized labor market with job offers being arranged before migration by relatives and friends already working in the U.S. works very efficiently and to the benefit of both workers and employers," Cornelius said. "What's in the new system for them?"

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates strict immigration rules, is disappointed for the opposite reason.

"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."

Some workers who do have green cards are concerned about the increased competition for jobs that could be the result of the temporary worker program.

"We just want one job that pays well," says Guadalupe Muniz, who crosses the border legally each day with her husband, Juan, from their home in Juarez, Mexico, to work at a department store in El Paso.

Claudia Smith, director of California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, an immigrant advocacy group in Oceanside, Calif., doubts a guest worker program would substantially reduce the number of people who die crossing the border.

"It will have some impact but there is no way (a) guest worker program can be big enough to meet the needs of Mexicans seeking work or the demand in the United States for undocumented labor," she said.

Some immigrant advocates said the most important issue is not so much making it easier for more people to immigrate, but granting legal status to migrants who are already here.

"That's step No. 1 and that needs to be first on the list," said the Rev. Robin Hoover, founder of Tucson organization Humane Borders.

No matter what the arguments for and against, many Mexicans have one simple hope - that the Bush plan will give them more access to jobs north of the border.

"It's good," said Christina Flores, a resident of Juarez who was shopping in El Paso. "There are many people who need to work (in the United States) because the factories have closed in Juarez."

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