The immigration proposal presented by President Bush Wednesday drew immediate response from immigration reform advocates in the United States and Mexico. But reaction to the proposal reflects the deep divisions of opinion that this issue has created.
Before presenting his proposal Wednesday, President Bush spoke by telephone with Mexican President Vicente Fox, who has been pressing for such measures ever since he took office more than three years ago. The two men have discussed the topic many times and are expected to address it again when they meet in person early next week at the Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico.
Speaking in Mexico shortly after his conversation with Mr. Bush Wednesday, President Fox emphasized the cooperative spirit the two leaders have sustained for years. He said he and Mr. Bush began speaking about the immigration problem when he was governor of the Mexican state of Guanajuato and Mr. Bush was governor of Texas. He said they have continued seeking solutions to the issue that would be good for both countries.
The two leaders seemed close to an agreement in September 2001, but only days after their meeting the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington diverted the Bush administration's attention towards border security. While Mexico cooperated with U.S. security efforts, the setback on immigration created an irritant in bilateral relations.
Mexicans and people of Mexican origin in the United States have generally responded favorably to the Bush proposal, but groups advocating stricter enforcement of immigration laws have expressed outrage.
David Ray, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), says the president's proposal amounts to an amnesty that will undermine enforcement and draw even more illegal immigrants.
"The fact is that a huge guest worker program combined with an illegal alien amnesty is bad for American workers who are going to see their real wages and working conditions decline and it is bad news for homeland security because it is going to blow the doors off immigration enforcement," he said. "Anybody who was even thinking of entering the United States illegally will now the green light to go ahead and try because millions of people are getting away with it."
Not surprisingly, advocates for immigrants, especially those representing the Mexican segment of the immigrant population, see things differently. They are expressing cautious approval of the president's statements.
Here in Texas, Ana Yanez Borrea, public policy director for the state office of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), says the president's idea of granting three-year visas to undocumented workers is a step in the right direction, but far short of what is needed.
"What we are looking for is immigration reform that will provide benefits for workers in the sense of being able to create a path to legal residency and citizenship. What we want is real immigration reform," she said.
She added that many undocumented workers are abused by employers, but are afraid to say anything because of their status. She said a temporary permit would do little to help them. "When you come here and you have a three-year permit, basically, without a real path to legalization and permanent residency, a lot of people are still going to have that fear factor," she said.
Other immigrant advocates also argue for stronger enforcement of labor laws as part of any reform package. Some say real reform can only come with the issuance of visas for the eight to ten million immigrants who currently reside in the United States illegally.
There is also suspicion that President Bush's proposal, coming at the beginning of a presidential election year, could be just a ploy to attract Hispanic votes. Cecilia Munoz, Public Policy Director for La Raza, a Mexican-American advocacy group, says much will depend on how strongly the president pushes this reform in the U.S. Congress.
"The proof of the pudding really is going to be in the investment the administration makes in working out the flaws in this proposal, in finding bi-partisan leadership in the Congress to get the job done," she said. "You are going to need votes on both sides of the aisle in order to enact reform. And [they must] invest political capital. If they do not do that then that suggests this is all about politics and I think there are consequences associated with that."
Since the Bush proposals were not presented in the form of legislation, it will be up to the Congress to shape them into a bill, which can then be debated and ultimately either approved or set aside. Congress goes back into session January 20, but because immigration reform is such a controversial issue, the legislators may choose to set it aside until after the general election in November.