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Bush Proposes Sweeping Changes to US Immigration Law - 2004-01-07

President Bush wants to change U.S. immigration laws to grant legal status to millions of people who are working in the country illegally. The president's plan is expected to face Congressional opposition from members of his own party.

President Bush says the new temporary worker program will make U.S. immigration more compassionate by matching U.S. employers with undocumented workers already in the United States or those who want to find work here.

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

The plan would legalize what is estimated to be at least eight million undocumented workers already in America, as those who qualify for the program would not be punished for entering the country, or working, illegally.

They would be free to travel between the United States and their home countries without penalty and would receive all U.S. employee benefits including minimum wage, workplace safety standards, and legal protections. They would pay taxes, qualify for federal retirement savings, and be eligible for driver's licenses in most states.

The permits would be good for three years and could be renewed a still-undetermined number of times. The program would eventually end, and President Bush says those enrolled in it would be expected to return home unless they had separately qualified for citizenship.

"Participants who do not remain employed, who do not follow the rules of the program, or who break the law will not be eligible for continued participation and will be required to return to their home," he explained.

The president's plan requires approval from Congress where it is expected to face criticism from conservative Republicans who say they do not want to reward lawbreakers who have entered the country illegally and are working without permission.

In the run-up to this announcement, White House officials have repeatedly said this is not a blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants, and there is no link between the temporary worker cards and U.S. citizenship.

The reforms include incentives for undocumented workers to return to their countries by increasing the number of U.S. green cards available for them to enter legally.

The plan has also drawn opposition from labor unions who say it would take jobs away from American workers. President Bush says the plan will require employers to make every reasonable effort to find an American worker first. Only then will they be allowed to hire immigrants.

"Employers must not hire undocumented aliens or temporary workers whose legal status has expired," he said. "They must report to the government the temporary workers they hire and who leave their employ so that we can keep track of people in the program and better enforce our immigration laws."

President Bush telephoned Mexican President Vicente Fox ahead of the announcement and will discuss its details during talks next week. Mr. Fox has been pushing for U.S. immigration reform at a time when Washington needs Mexico's help improving border security and stopping drug trafficking.

Immigration reform was a big campaign issue for the president in the 2000 election. But greater attention to homeland security following the terrorist attacks of September 2001 slowed those reforms.

White House officials say they now have a plan that meets the America's economic and security needs by increasing federal revenues with more legal tax-payers and keeping better track of who is living in the country.

The president's first legislative proposal of the election year also appears designed to appeal to America's nearly 40 million Hispanic citizens who now make-up the country's largest ethnic group.

Hispanic voters hold considerable political power in the key electoral states of California, Texas, and Florida. Mr. Bush won just one-third of the Hispanic vote in 2000.