Jan. 7, 2004 – In a much anticipated move that left many immigration and civil rights groups up in arms, President Bush ushered in the election year with a proposal Wednesday for a new system allowing millions of undocumented workers to gain temporary legal status.
In a vaguely worded set of principles, Bush outlined his recommendations for securing the border while boosting the US economy and promoting "compassion" for undocumented workers.
The announcement, which was touted for weeks ahead as the first major overhaul of US immigration policy in nearly 20 years, would create a "temporary worker program" to "match willing workers with willing employers." The details of the plan were left, according to Bush, for Congress to decide.
Bush said his plan would allow some of the eight to 12 million undocumented immigrants currently in the US, along with foreign-nationals looking for work, to pay a one-time fee to apply to work in the US legally for three years. The set of principles, however, offers no clear route for these workers and their families to gain citizenship or even permanent residency during the three-year period outside of the formal, years-long application process currently in place.
The proposal appears "to offer the business community full access to the immigrant workers it needs while providing very little to the workers themselves," said Raul Yzaguirre, President of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest Latino civil rights organization in the US, in a statement.
Finding undocumented workers who have been in the US for decades and who would now be willing to give up the lives they have made for themselves and their families seems unlikely.
Indeed, the loosely defined principles say "guest workers" can reapply once their three years are finished, but donâ€™t say how or for how long. Even more unclear in this "immigration overhaul" is the issue of family reunification.
According to David Koff, a spokesman for the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride Coalition, whether a woman or manâ€™s family in their home country will be able to join them in the US would be a deciding factor in potential guest workersâ€™ decision to enter the country under Bushâ€™s set of principles or just continue to enter illegally. Koffâ€™s Washington, DC-based group organized freedom rides, with over 1,000 immigrant workers joining caravans across the country last fall to demand better working conditions and steps towards legalization for undocumented workers, converging in NYC in mid-October.
In fact, Bush suggests the US offer "incentives for temporary, foreign workers to return permanently to their home countries after their period of work in the United States has expired."
Under Bushâ€™s proposal the US will work with other countries to allow workers in the US to receive payments from their home countriesâ€™ retirement systems and will support the creation of tax-preferred savings accounts they can collect when they return to their native countries.
Claudia Gomez Arteaga, an associate with the Immigrant Rights Project at the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said the reliability of such "incentives" in these workersâ€™ home countries is questionable at best. At worst, she said, this part of the proposal doesnâ€™t take into account the over 10 million undocumented men and women who have built lives in the US sometimes over decades.
"The disincentives [for these workers] to become full members of their communities, to get involved in the political process are immense, because you know at the end of three years, you have no choice, you will be uprooted," said Koff.
Arteaga says the proposal, which would largely affect Mexican nationals who make up 39 percent of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S, is part of a larger push to win the Latino vote ahead of the November presidential elections. Latinos made up 12.5 percent of the population in 2000, according to the Census Bureau, and as a voting bloc, their numbers are increasing. In 1988, Latinos represented about 2 percent of US voters. By 2000, the figure had grown to 7 percent, and it is expected to swell to as much as 9 percent this year, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
Koff is skeptical of the likeliness that Bushâ€™s policies will impact the Latino vote. "I think the people have already seen through it. Groups are already organizing ads or policy and public service announcements that will be going out on Spanish language TV and radio," he said after listening in on a conference call between various community organizations.
"You could probably say that it is very much an election year maneuver to try to represent something as immigration reform and thereby appeal to the desires of tens of millions of immigrants and their descendants," Koff added.
The US Chamber of Commerce, the world's largest business federation representing more than three million businesses and organizations of every size, sector and region, expressed its support for Bushâ€™s plan.
"Our immigration system is broken and the government must act in a comprehensive way to fix it," said Randel Johnson, US Chamber of Commerce vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits in a statement following Bush's speech. "We need a system of â€˜earned targeted adjustmentâ€™ for undocumented workers that fill vital roles in our economy, which would enable them to achieve legal status. We also need to expand permanent and temporary visas for workers to enter the United States legally to meet future workforce requirements."
The manufacturing, services and agribusiness sectors employ the majority of men and women who enter the US without a visa, usually for low wages, at long hours and carrying out the least desired work. This "revolving door" of workers would certainly be a boon for them, he added.
Some immigrant rights groups, including the freedom ride coalition and the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, say much of Bushâ€™s short list would be hard to monitor and would be mired in bureaucracy.
For example, the set of principles states that US jobs will only be offered to immigrants after they have been turned down by American workers, but details of how to monitor this are left unclear. Also, finding undocumented workers who have been in the US for decades and who would now be willing to give up the lives they have made for themselves and their families seems unlikely.
Anticipation of seeing real change in immigration policy -- not seen since the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) under former President Ronald Reagan -- built up in the weeks ahead of Bushâ€™s announcement. Under IRCA, millions of undocumented residents in the US were allowed to apply for legalization, but hasty planning and bureaucratic bottle-necks prevented any such amnesty from being realized for many immigrants.
While such clarifications were left out the proposal, Bush made himself clear on the topic of national security.
Even as Bush proclaimed in his speech that the principles would make the US a "more humane and stronger country," he detailed the militarization of the US border along Mexico.
"We're matching all visa applicants against an expanded screening list to identify terrorists and criminals and immigration violators," Bush said.
Bush touted the increased "security" along the border, saying patrols have increased from 9,788 on September 11, 2001 to 10,835 on December 1, 2003, according to the White House.
"Weâ€™re dealing with a national security framework that equates immigrants with terrorists and uses them as a scapegoat for serious flaws in national security policy," said Arteaga.