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Bush takes on illegal workers

By RICHARD TOMKINS, UPI White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Jan. 7 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush pledged Wednesday there would be no amnesty to illegal aliens in the country, but unveiled an immigration reform program that would allow millions of undocumented workers the opportunity to obtain temporary guest worker status.

The proposal, on the back burner since the terrorist attacks of 2001, was outlined in broad strokes during a speech to Hispanic groups in the East Room of the White House.

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"Our nation needs an immigration system that serves the American economy and reflects the American dream," Bush said. "Reform must begin by confronting a basic fact of life and economics: Some of the jobs being generated in America's growing economy are jobs Americans are not filling.

"Yet these jobs represent a tremendous opportunity for workers from abroad.

Under the proposal, still to be thrashed out with Congress, illegal workers in the United States would be allowed to come forward without fear of deportation and apply for a three-year guest worker visa. The job they hold would be proof that their employer was unable to find a legal worker for it.

Guest worker status would afford the foreign worker U.S. labor law protections, as well as the right to travel back and forth to his home country. Those who can prove they can support their families if brought to United States would be allowed to do so.

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Foreign workers could also apply for the status from overseas.

In both cases, the workers would only be temporary residents, and they would not be given special advantage in applying for permanent residence.

"The legal status granted by this program will last three years and will be renewable, but it will have an end," Bush said. "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 be required to return to their home."

Bush's proposal is sure to stir up a hornet's nest on Capitol Hill, especially in an election year. Even before he formally announced it, advocacy groups began shredding details given in advance.

"Thumbs down," Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy of the Hispanic support organization National Council of La Raza, told United Press International. "We are not happy with this proposal.

"He's only offering temporary guest worker status to people living and working in the United States. There is no opportunity for people to become permanent residents."

Munoz, whose organization wants a general amnesty for the millions of illegal immigrants in the country, said the program Bush envisages would benefit employers but not the workers, who would eventually be forced to leave the country.

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However, John Keeley, communications director of The Center for Immigration Studies, blasted the plan as being amnesty under a different name. The Center for Immigration Studies is a Washington non-profit organization is aimed at decreasing immigration to the United States.

"Despite the administration's protests to the contrary, the proposal is in fact an amnesty for illegal aliens and undermines U.S. immigration law which is explicit about what is to be done with illegal immigrants -- they are to be deported."

Keeley said it was "fair to suggest that there is the likelihood of this being a cynical political ploy by the administration for which they will fight precious little if at all to see it enacted."

Americans of Hispanic heritage are now the largest single minority group in the country, according to the 2000 U.S. Census data. They comprise 12.5 percent of the population -- a rich vein of potential votes to mine, especially in the West and South, where the majority live.

More than 60 percent of Hispanic Americans are of Mexican heritage. Mexico is the main source of illegal immigrants in the country.

The problem of illegal immigrants from Mexico is a hot-button issue in the West and Southwest, where many work as migrant agricultural workers or in low-paying service jobs.

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Bush Wednesday noted the human tragedy involved -- not just alien workers being underpaid or taken advantage of, but would be illegal workers paying with their lives attempting to cross the porous U.S.-Mexico border.

The border immigration issue has also soured relations between Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, whom Bush will meet in Monterey next week.

Mexican officials have complained that while they have tightened up on border security, the United States has not reciprocated by dealing positively with the issue of Mexicans seeking work in America.

Bush Wednesday denied his plan was a form of amnesty.

"Granting amnesty encourages the violation of our laws and perpetuates illegal immigration," he said. "America's a welcoming country, but citizenship must not be the automatic reward for violating the laws of America."

Illegal aliens who take advantage of the program and new foreign workers would get no special advantage in applying for permanent residence or citizenship and would have to join the queue with those applying legally from abroad, he said.

The administration, however, would ask Congress to annually expand the number of permanent resident visas made available to people, since "those willing to take the difficult path to citizenship -- the path of work and patience and assimilation -- should be welcome in America, like generations of immigrants before them."

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Bush also said the administration intended to examine and change the current test administered to prospective citizens.

The test, which probes general knowledge of U.S. history and government, should also test knowledge of the ideals that have shaped the country, he said.

"The understanding of what it means to be an American is not a formality in the naturalization process," he said, "it is essential to full participation in our democracy.

"Every citizen of America has an obligation to learn the values that make us one nation: liberty and civil responsibility, equality under God, tolerance for others."

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