Union Tribune

January 8, 2004

Bush cites 'fairness' in call for 3-year visas
'Willing workers' would be welcome


WASHINGTON President Bush yesterday outlined an ambitious plan to both acknowledge the importance of undocumented workers by giving them temporary legal status and uphold the law by denying them the amnesty they have demanded.

"Out of common sense and fairness, our laws should allow willing workers to enter our country and fill jobs that Americans are not filling," Bush said.

The White House audience included several members of Congress who will be expected to breathe life into the proposal.

Bush proposed granting renewable, three-year visas to illegal immigrants now working here as well as to people living abroad who want to apply for jobs that Americans leave unfilled.

He said the American tradition of welcoming immigrants is incompatible with the massive labor market that leaves the estimated 8 million to 12 million illegal immigrants "condemned to fear and insecurity" and vulnerable to "brutal rings of heartless human smugglers."

Rolled out at the start of an election year and five days before Bush is to meet with Mexican President Vicente Fox, the proposal sought to encourage Latino immigrant advocacy groups and to avoid angering Bush's conservative base, which opposes calls for a sweeping amnesty.

Fox, after a telephone conversation with Bush yesterday morning, called it a "very interesting plan." Fox, who said he was waiting for more details, welcomed Bush's effort to ensure that immigrants would be "respected in all their labor rights and human rights, (and) can also come and go to Mexico and be close to their family."

After Bush's speech, several advocates for advocates for illegal immigrants gathered across the street from the White House to voice their dismay that he had not called on Congress to put undocumented workers on the path to permanent residency and citizenship. They said his rhetoric about the nation's immigrant past went sour when he laid out his proposal for the future.

Michelle Waslin of the National Council of La Raza said the president's message to them was: "You can work here for a couple years, and we're going to send you back home."

But Gabriella Lemus of the League of United Latin American Citizens was both optimistic and grateful that Bush had reopened the immigration debate.

"There is an opportunity here maybe to do some changes," Lemus said. Then, noting Bush's proposal to raise the number of immigrant visas from the current level of nearly 1.1 million, she said, "The devil will be in the details in terms of how high that number is going to go and who is going to get those visas."

Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, who is likely to be a legislative point man for the president, said he favors a hefty growth in visas that would slash the backlog of those who have been approved but often wait for years because of annual caps. He also wants to allow temporary workers to renew their three-year visas as many times as it takes for them to reach the head of the visa line.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., on a visit to Mexico City, said he was confident legislation will be approved by Congress.

But a longtime congressional advocate of reduced immigration, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, blasted the plan, saying it proposed "gradual amnesty for illegal aliens and a dramatic increase in legal immigration."

He predicted a steady supply of foreign workers would depress wages across the country.

About 40 percent of the nation's illegal immigrants live in California, according to Hans Johnson, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California.

Bush's proposal drew a mixed reaction in San Diego County, where thousands of illegal immigrants work.

Vista resident Rosario Galvan Balderos said Bush's plan would help her 22-year-old son, Rogelio, an undocumented construction worker.

Not only would he be able to work legally, she said, but he would also be able to travel to and from Mexico without crossing illegally.

"He wants to go visit his grandparents (in Mexico)," Balderos said. "But I tell him he can't. I don't want anything to happen to him."

The most outspoken supporter of immigration restrictions in Congress, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., said Bush was "totally ignoring the nation's experience" with the 1986 amnesty. With that program, Congress vowed to combine a pragmatic acceptance of millions of illegal workers along with employer sanctions that would shut off future flows of illegal immigration.

But while 2.7 million immigrants received amnesty, illegal immigration soared to record levels as migrant networks spread across the country and immigration officials generally neglected interior enforcement.

The 1986 program "only encouraged a new wave of illegal immigration," Tancredo said. "I don't think Congress will make this same mistake again."

David Hayes-Bautista, a demographer at the University of California Los Angeles, said Bush's plan raises the question of whether illegal immigrants who qualify for temporary legal status will be allowed to obtain driver licenses.

Last year, the Legislature voted to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver licenses, but then rescinded the measure after Arnold Schwarzenegger took office as governor.

Despite what he called the shortcomings of Bush's plan, Hayes-Bautista said he believes many immigrants will apply if the plan is made available to them.

"This is only one-third of the loaf, but when you're hungry a third of a loaf is better than none," he said.

San Diego resident Ricardo Leyva, 23, who is undocumented, said he doesn't know much about the Bush plan, "but I'm willing to do pretty much anything to get residency."

Leyva cleans a San Diego restaurant for $6.75 an hour, but he wants to return to college. He's pinning his hopes on another bill in Congress that would legalize undocumented immigrants who grew up in the United States and graduated from high school here.

In Logan Heights, restaurant owner Delia Macias, 49, said the Bush plan would allow her to hire workers she now turns away.

"I'll be able to help more Latinos who are in this situation and with the government's support. I can't do it without that support," she said as she watched her workers, who she said were all legal, cooking and serving customers at Delia's Kitchen. "They should have done this a long time ago."

Staff writer Leonel Sanchezcontributed to this report.

Copyright 2004 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.