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Democrats Unveil Plan for Undocumented Workers to Become Legal US Residents - 2004-05-04

Democrats in Congress have unveiled legislation to overhaul America's immigration system by providing a means for undocumented workers to become legal U.S. residents. The plan comes on the heels of a proposal by President Bush that would establish a massive guest worker program in the United States.

The Democratic plan would legalize the status of undocumented workers who have been in the United States for a minimum of five years and been employed for at least two of those years. Applicants would have to undergo a criminal background check and a medical examination and demonstrate a basic command of the English language.

The lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate is Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and one of the sponsors in the House of Representatives is Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, who spoke with reporters Tuesday.

"Our bill says that if you have been in the United States for five years or more, working and contributing with good moral character, you should be a full partner in the American way of life," Mr. Gutierrez said. "It says we can no longer ignore the issue of million of undocumented residents in our nation."

The Democratic proposal also aims to speed "family reunification" between U.S. residents and immediate family members still living in other nations. In addition, the plan would establish a total of 350,000 temporary work visas for low-skilled, low-wage positions. It has the backing of the large U.S. labor federation, the AFL-CIO and a number of immigrant advocacy groups.

Representative Gutierrez said that America needs a reliable, expanding workforce, and that immigrants, even undocumented ones, deserve a chance at the American dream.

?It is about people America needs,? he said. ?I meet them [immigrants] everyday. They work at minimum wage jobs with inadequate healthcare. They do not complain. They long only for a better life for their children. And they love America. And they want to be Americans. And America should want them and embrace them as they [immigrants] want to embrace America.?

Earlier this year, President Bush proposed creating a guest worker program that would give temporary legal status to millions of undocumented workers, but the plan has no guarantee of permanent residency in the United States, a flaw according to his Democratic critics.

Even so, both Republicans and Democrats appear in agreement on one central issue: that the United States cannot simply ignore the millions of illegal immigrants who have built a life in the country and become an integral part of the domestic workforce.

However, not everyone is happy with either plan and critics are particularly displeased with Democrats' proposal.

John Wahala is a research associate at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based organization that advocates tighter immigration control. ?Essentially what it is, is an open-borders plan,? he said.

He also noted that, in the past when an amnesty has been granted to undocumented workers, it has resulted in a flood of new illegal immigrants trying to reach the United States to take advantage of the program, in effect worsening the very problem the amnesty was designed to correct.

Mr. Wahala added that there are other problems with rewarding those who entered the country illegally. ?It would be silly for someone to want to go through the legal channels that are currently on the books when they simply could come through [enter the United States] illegally,? he said. ?Right now, we do not have an enforcement mechanism [to effectively cut down on illegal immigration] and this plan would simply encourage more illegal immigration.?

Congressman Gutierrez disagrees. ?We want to eliminate undocumented, illegal immigration to this country,? he stated. ?That is why this bill is different and comprehensive. It adds 350,000 visas a year so that they can come in an orderly fashion, in a legal fashion to this country.?

The representative adds that the Democratic plan would eliminate so-called "caps" or limits established by the federal government on a per-country basis for those who have waited five years or more to come to the United States through legal channels.

Mr. Gutierrez admitted that, because Democrats are the minority party in Congress, passage of the plan will be an uphill battle. He expressed hope, however, that some Republicans could be convinced to vote for the bill. If approved by Congress, it would need the signature of President Bush to become law.