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Inside Politics

Bush plan lets illegal workers keep jobs

From Dana Bash and John King
CNN Washington Bureau

President Bush is set to present his immigration proposal Wednesday.
President Bush is set to present his immigration proposal Wednesday.

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George W. Bush
United States

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush will outline an immigration reform proposal Wednesday that would allow workers in the United States illegally to join a new temporary worker program and not lose their jobs, administration officials said.

Those immigrants could then apply for permanent residency, although those in the temporary worker program would get no preference over other "Green Card" applicants, the officials said.

About 150 guests will be invited to the White House East Room to hear the address, including members of immigration groups and others interested in such policy, said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

Allowing those who illegally entered the United States to come forward and keep their jobs is the most controversial aspect of the plan.

Administration officials rejected the notion that it would amount to amnesty for illegal immigrants.

They said there is no guarantee those who join the new temporary worker program would qualify for Green Cards.

The workers would have no advantages if they do apply, the officials said, and they would be expected to return to their country of origin when their temporary visa expired.

Officials said the measure was designed largely for economic reasons -- to match "willing workers with willing employers," as administration officials put it.

The officials said the employers would have to show they cannot find U.S. citizens to fill their jobs.

They said getting undocumented workers to come forward would bring them into the tax system and "out of the shadows," as one official put it, and guarantee them wage and employment rights.

One of Bush's goals, the officials said, was to "promote compassion" and get Congress and the country to "understand the broken system" that now includes an estimated 8 million undocumented immigrants, most of them from Mexico.

The initiative will be unveiled days before Bush's visit next week to Mexico for a regional summit and talks with Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Immigration policy has been a source of frequent tension between the two leaders.

"We have discussed for a long time with Mexico the need for a more humane, safe, orderly migration policy," McClellan said.

But he said the September 11 attacks forced a shift in focus to border security.

According to several senior administration officials, Bush's initiative includes such highlights as:

• The new temporary worker program would include a three-year temporary visa, and Bush will ask Congress to allow one renewal -- for six years in all. Officials said they were open to allowing additional terms, subject to congressional negotiation.

• The program would be open to both legal and illegal immigrants, so long as those without papers could prove they were working in the United States as of the date the new policy becomes law.

Officials said that requirement would discourage a flood of new illegal immigration.

• Those who qualify as new legal temporary workers could apply for permanent residency under existing laws but would not receive favorable treatment. But the administration will urge Congress to increase the limit of 140,000 Green Cards issued each year.

The White House initiative is modeled after several pending proposals in Congress.

Arizona Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe, for example, has called for a temporary worker program if employers first posted jobs on the Internet for 14 days to give U.S. citizens first crack at the positions.

It also tracks many proposals advocated by Democrats, who suspect that Bush's true goal is to court the growing Latino population.

In 2000, 7 percent of all voters were Hispanic, but Bush garnered only 35 percent of that vote to former Vice President Al Gore's 65 percent.

"I certainly hope the administration's long-awaited re-involvement in this fundamental debate is genuine, and not because of election year conversion," said Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Among Bush's allies in the debate is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Randel Johnson, a chamber vice president who deals with immigration issues, said including workers who illegally entered the United States is perhaps controversial but in his view, necessary.

"The reality of it is we are not going to deport all these people," Johnson said. "So we have to come up with something to deal with the situation. Or we can continue to put our head in the sand."

But Colorado Republican Rep. Thomas Tancredo is among the congressional conservatives who promise to fight provisions they view as rewarding lawbreakers.

"People who are here illegally -- they need to be deported," Tancredo said. "People who hire them need to be fined. If they keep doing it they need to be sent to jail. It's against the law."

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