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US Immigration Reform Likely a Significant Issue in Race for White House - 2004-01-29


Congressional Democrats have presented principles for immigration reform they say will be fairer than what President Bush has proposed. The announcement sets up an election year battle between Democrats and Republicans over immigration.

The president's immigration proposal, which he outlined in early January, would give legal status to millions of un-documented immigrants, and create a temporary program to match foreign workers with jobs Americans are not willing to take.

Mr. Bush used his State of the Union address to underscore the advantages he sees in the plan. "This reform will be good for our economy because employers will find needed workers in an honest and orderly system," he said. "A temporary worker program will help protect our homeland allowing border patrol and law enforcement to focus on true threats to our national security."

While the proposal has received a warm reception in some quarters, notably among immigrant workers from Mexico and Central America, it has also been criticized by Hispanic-Americans including key Hispanic leaders in Congress.

"Simply acknowledging the need for our sweat, our toil and hard work is not enough. Simply recognizing our vital role in the workforce, to the bottom line of companies like Walmart, is not enough," said Congressman Luis Gutierrez, the chairman of the Democratic party Immigration Task Force. "I suggest you all get used to these words because we will repeat them again and again, to the president and to all members of Congress. We cannot have our work, you cannot have our work, if you don't give us our basic rights to go along with that work. Simply creating a permanent underclass for immigrants is not only unfair and unjust, it is unacceptable to the needs of our nation and unworthy of our nation's history and its heritage."

Mr. Gutierrez joined House Democratic leaders to announce what they call "comprehensive immigration reform principles."

He said President Bush deserves credit for tackling the issue of a "badly broken" immigration system, but adds that the Bush proposal fails to provide a "fair and clear path to permanency and citizenship."

And in an indirect reference to charges that political motivations in this election year underly the president's proposal, Mr. Gutierrez went on to say, "What is tough about seeking real reform is that you cannot compromise, and we will not compromise, our core principles because it might be politically expedient." "Our principles recognize that if there is an American worker who wants to do any of these jobs that they should first have the opportunity and we should be clear that we seek to ensure that no American worker is displaced," said Robert Menendez, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "But by the same token, the reality is that for those immigrants who are hunched over every day making sure we [can] put fruits and vegetables on our table, for those who are plucking chicken in Arkansas, for those who are on their knees scrubbing bathrooms in hotel rooms and in people's private homes across the landscape of America, we are collectively receiving the benefit of millions of people who are doing the work that we cannot get Americans to do." Whatever immigration reform emerges, Congress will have to approve a new law. Groups representing Hispanic Americans want to be sure it includes labor and legal rights to prevent abuse of workers.

"We need a new temporary worker program that provides legal channels for people to come here, but that also has adequate labor protections to protect both American workers and immigrant workers and we need to provide a path to permanent residency and citizenship for those workers who decide to make the U.S. their permanent home," said Michelle Waslin, a senior immigration policy analyst with The National Council of La Raza, an organization working to reduce poverty and discrimination in the U.S. Latino community.

Estimates of the number of illegal immigrants currently in the United States range as high as ten million.

Immigration, along with national security and the economy, has been a key issue among Democratic candidates for president this year, and is likely to be just as significant in the contest between President Bush and a future Democratic nominee for the White House.