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Bush's Immigration Overhaul Plan Generates Conflicting Reactions in California - 2004-01-08

President Bush's proposal for a temporary worker program could legalize the status of millions of people who live in the United States illegally. The plan has generated lively discussions in Los Angeles, where hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants live. Some people praise the idea, but others dislike it.

In Los Angeles, it was the top news item on Spanish television channel 34. "The president must still work out the details of plan with Congress, but says the proposed change to U.S. immigration law is a simple question of economics," said an announcer.

Supporters of the program for temporary workers see a win-win situation. Employers will get the employees they need, many illegal immigrants can legalize their status, and analysts say it will improve relations with Mexico while President Bush gains favor with Hispanic voters. Federal officials say that more than half of those in the United States illegally come from Mexico.

Los Angeles immigration attorney Meredith Brown supports the plan. "Finally," she said, "it puts to rest the issue of so many people that are without documentation but at the same time are gardening our homes, are taking care of our children, that are contributing to the service sector and to the agricultural sector of our nation, and that actually give back in economic terms much more than what has been taken out."

Ira Mehlman, the Los Angeles-based spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says the president's proposal rewards those who have broken the law.

"It is unfair to people who are playing by the rules, who are trying to come here through the legal process," he said. "But even more so, it is unfair to American workers. What this proposal will allow is for employers to simply bypass American workers in favor of people who have come here illegally and cheated to get into the United States." He worries that the plan could also drive down wages in some industries.

Democratic congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, whose California district has many illegal residents, accepts the president's argument that guest workers will only take jobs that Americans won't take.

But one Hispanic organization, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), thinks the plan gives too much power to employers, who must sponsor the workers.

"MALDEF opposes guest worker programs because we believe they lead to abuses," said J.C. Flores, a spokeswoman for the group. "The worker is beholden to an individual employer, and in the past, guest worker programs have never worked out, in other countries and also in the United States."

But she says her group is pleased that Mr. Bush has raised the issue of what she calls a "broken" immigration system. She says the organization is hopeful that the final plan that results from negotiations with Congress will be more to its liking.