OP-EDS

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January 16, 2004

Bush talks turkey on immigration

President Bush's proposal to offer temporary worker status to undocumented immigrants has been greeted, understandably, with ambivalence on the part of the undocumented workers and their advocates. The proposed bill is promising. Undocumented foreign nationals currently employed and residing in the U.S., as well as foreign nationals applying from abroad, would be able to obtain temporary worker status for three years, renewable one time for a total stay of six years. As temporary workers, foreign nationals would be free to travel between the U.S. and their country of origin and would accrue retirement benefits in their home country for work completed in the U.S.

Most importantly, being legalized, undocumented immigrants would no longer be at the behest of their employers, who hold the ultimate trump card of "outing" workers to the law. The reality is that our national economy is built on the backs of both citizens and undocumented workers. To maintain our existing laws is to maintain a fiction at the cost of those workers' welfare. With this status, immigrants would be entitled to the same workplace protections as citizens, minimum wage and due process among them.

It all looks good—too good, some say, to be true. Pundits on both sides of the political spectrum dismiss the proposal as a lure for the coveted Latino vote. The program, a Bush campaign promise shelved after 9/11, is well timed for the upcoming elections—likely too late to be realized before Election Day but early enough to saturate the news with Bush's good intentions. Only time will tell whether this proposal sees the light, and in what form if it makes it that far. As they develop, however, the following issues may help to determine whether this plan's a hard rock or a gem.

How many more green cards will be granted yearly? During a guest worker's six-year legal stay, he or she may legally apply for a green card. However, if green cards continue to be granted in their current numbers, a worker could face a ten to twenty year wait for one. In this case, the guest worker proposal may result in higher numbers of deportations, rather than the "compassionate" naturalization of immigrants who have worked and paid taxes here for years. Bush has announced that he will seek an increase in the number of green cards issued, but has not yet specified a number. This number will prove highly important in the impact of this plan, if it is passed. If too few additional green cards are issued, illegal immigrants may come to view temporary worker status as a deportation snare and choose to take their chances working illegally instead. In this case, the proposal will fail to diminish the ranks of the underclass of illegal workers and, with it, the national security risks it poses. It's for this reason that immigrant advocates, such as Cecilia Munoz of La Raza, suspect that this plan may turn out to be lemonade for employers—and a lemon for workers.

How will the American Workers Come First provision be enforced? According to Bush's proposal, before a job may be offered to an undocumented worker an employer must have made "every reasonable effort to find an American" to fill it. How and what constitutes a "reasonable effort," is unclear. The majority of undocumented workers are employed in lower-wage, unskilled positions, few of which involve a rigorous hiring process. Most likely, the provision is an empty one, but it's possible that, if strictly enforced, it may lead overzealous employers to deny employment to all undocumented workers for fear of not having made a "reasonable effort" to find American workers.

Will USCIS really be a kinder, gentler INS? In 2002, for the purposes of reducing intimidation, the INS split into the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), with the intention that USCIS be restricted solely to non-criminal issues. However, the change has not been palpable for many immigrants, and building immigrant trust will be difficult in the wake of programs like NSEERS, through which Arab and Muslim men who willingly came forward to register with the federal government found themselves detained or even deported for minor visa violations. In light of such policies, many immigrants may forego temporary worker status, fearing that these benevolent policies may be shed as ably as last year's name.

At this point, speculations on the ends of Bush's immigration proposal are exactly that: speculations. Such scrutiny of an ostensibly positive proposal may seem out of place, but Capitol Hill has frequently broken its promises to undocumented workers. Immigrants have seen plenty of Trojan Horses. By now, they're willing to look a gift horse in the mouth.