Dueling Immigration Ideas Frame a Key Election Issue
Sun May 2, 7:55 AM ET
By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats, playing catch-up with President Bush (news - web sites)'s guest-worker proposal, plan to introduce an immigration reform bill Tuesday that would put millions of illegal immigrants on the path to citizenship but restrict the entry of future workers.
The Democratic plan would offer green cards and permanent resident status to all immigrants who have been in the United States at least five years, can prove they have worked at least 24 months and have passed background and medical checks. It also would loosen quotas that keep many immigrants from bringing relatives into the United States.
The Democrats' proposal, coupled with the Bush plan, would frame the election-year debate on a politically sensitive issue. In many parts of the country, and especially in swing states such as Florida and New Mexico, both parties are courting immigrant constituencies.
The two proposals take sharply different approaches: The Democrats would make it harder to import so-called guest workers but would open the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country; Bush would allow illegal immigrants to become legal temporary workers, but without a promise of green cards or citizenship.
The Los Angeles Times obtained a detailed summary of the Democratic bill, which was drafted by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.).
The bill is an effort to recapture a traditionally Democratic issue from President Bush, who got out in front by proposing a new guest-worker plan that would allow as many as 12 million illegal immigrants to obtain temporary legal status.
"It's political tit for tat," said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. "The Democrats have been working on immigration for quite a while, and they cannot afford to have the president one-up them on it."
Latinos generally have voted Democratic in the past, but Republicans see an opportunity to make inroads. Polls have shown that Latino voters, while skeptical, are receptive to Bush's immigration plan. It won the endorsement of Mexican President Vicente Fox (news - web sites), and Republicans hope to increase their share of the Latino vote in November.
Release of the Democratic blueprint is planned for the eve of Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican patriotic observance commemorating the 1862 defeat of French invaders at the Battle of Puebla.
Prospects for the passage of comprehensive immigration legislation are slim because the two parties are far apart in an election year. But the competing proposals are expected to define the battle lines.
Renewed attention to the issue, however, may build political support for limited measures benefiting farm workers and students that have support from lawmakers of both parties.
The Democrats' reform plan provides a window into the kinds of compromises Bush may be pushed to accept if he wins a second term — and the policies presumed Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) might pursue if elected president.
Kerry has endorsed the concept of "earned legalization" — an amnesty for illegal immigrants who are established, working and have passed a background check.
The Democratic proposal contains more detail than Bush's principles for immigration reform. And it offers a different approach for dealing with the estimated 8 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
Bush has proposed a broad guest-worker program that would allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country up to six years.
Like a funnel, however, it would let only a few progress to green cards and citizenship. The president said he would support what he termed a reasonable increase in the number of available green cards, but had not said by how much.
The Democrats want to allow undocumented workers to apply for permanent legal status but limit the number of future guest workers to 350,000 a year. The figure is close to some estimates of the net annual increase of illegal immigrants.

The Democratic proposal is largely silent on enforcement. Bush has called for a crackdown on employers who hire undocumented workers. Many analysts think a legalization program would have to include a significant increase in enforcement to pass Congress. In the House, about 120 lawmakers support deputizing local police and sheriffs to help enforce immigration laws.
"If and when there is a comprehensive immigration reform bill, we know there is going to be an enforcement component to it," said Theresa Brown, immigration policy director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (news - web sites).
The Democratic bill has three main components: "earned adjustment" or amnesty, family reunification and a guest-worker program.
The amnesty provisions are extensive. For example, though the main legalization program would be restricted to those who could prove they had lived in the U.S. for five years, recent arrivals would not be shut out. The Democratic plan would allow them to apply for a "transitional status" good for five years. After that, they could seek green cards.
The Democrats' plan also addresses backlogs that can mean years of waiting for immigrants trying to join their relatives already living in the United States — a concern for other immigrants as well as Latinos.
Close relatives would be exempted from numerical limits on family-based immigration. Visa applicants waiting for more than five years would be granted admission, regardless of per-country numerical limits.
The United States admits about 1 million legal immigrants each year, and such family-reunification measures could lead to a significant increase over time.
The Democrats' guest-worker program would be more restrictive than Bush's. It is likely to prove unacceptable to business groups.
The Bush plan requires employers to show that they could not find a U.S. worker for the job. But it sets no limit on the number of foreign workers who would be allowed entry, guaranteed only the minimum wage. The Democratic plan sets an annual limit of 350,000 visas for low-skilled workers. It would require employers to pay "prevailing wages" keyed to union pay scales.
"It has to be a wish list, because the Democrats don't control anything," said Papademetriou. "What they are trying to do is create a conversation."
Proponents of restrictions on immigration predicted that the Democrats' plan and Bush's plan would prove equally unpopular with a majority of voters, particularly the native-born.
"John Kerry (news - web sites) certainly doesn't want to become known as the illegal alien amnesty candidate, although Bush is too in a way," said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "I see this as a way to appeal to the Hispanic voting base."
On Monday, White House officials are scheduled to meet with about 70 representatives of Latino community service organizations from around the country. The activists want Bush to push harder for his immigration reform plan.
A spokesman for the group, Oscar Chacon of the Heartland Alliance in Chicago, said the Democratic plan might have broader appeal among Latinos.
"It seems to be more of a finished product, more concrete than what the president announced," Chacon said. "The president was very eloquent about the value of Hispanic immigration, but he gave few details about what he wants to do. We are tired of promises, and we are looking for action."*
Immigration plans
Congressional Democrats plan to unveil an immigration reform bill next week. How the main points compare to Bush's principles for reform:
Illegal immigrants
Democrats: Those who have lived in the United States at least five years, worked at least 24 months, pass a background check and medical exam, and demonstrate English proficiency could obtain permanent resident status (green cards). Those here for less than five years could apply for temporary status.
Bush: Illegal immigrants could apply for a temporary worker card, but would have to seek green cards separately and would get no special consideration. They would have to pass a background check and pay a registration fee. The temporary worker card would be good for three years and could be renewed for another three.
Guest workers
Democrats: A maximum of 350,000 guest workers could be admitted each year under two new programs. Employers must certify that U.S. workers are not available and the Labor Department (news - web sites) must find that employment of foreign workers would not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers. Workers could seek green cards after two years.
Bush: No limit on number of guest workers. Would match willing workers with willing employers, when no U.S. worker could be found for the job. Guest workers could bring their immediate families, and would be covered by U.S. wage and workplace safety laws. Workers could save money in tax-sheltered accounts to build a nest egg for their return home. They would get credit for Social Security (news - web sites) contributions.
Legal immigration
Democrats: Would promote family reunification by reducing or eliminating the years of waiting that legal immigrants now face to bring relatives to the U.S. from their home countries.
Bush: Would seek what he described as a reasonable increase in legal immigration. The U.S. now admits about 1 million legal immigrants a year.
Democrats: No major new enforcement initiatives.
Bush: Would increase enforcement against employers who continue to hire illegal immigrants.
Los Angeles Times