U.S. immigration policy has re-entered the national spotlight and could emerge as a key election issue later this year as Congress begins taking steps toward crafting legislation that would represent the most significant reforms to the policy in two decades.
Congressional efforts began within weeks of President Bush's announcement of a plan that would, among other things, allow more than 7 million illegal immigrants currently working in the United States to obtain 3-year legal status as temporary workers. The program would also be open to potential new immigrants seeking to work in the United States and would offer financial incentives for participants to return to their home countries at the end of the program.
The Bush plan generally has drawn mixed reactions, with some noting the positive effects of simply reopening immigration policy debate. Others, however, have blasted it, saying it still represents a dead end for immigrants because it offers no guarantees for work or residency. While Hector Flores, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, appeared with Bush for the unveiling of the plan, Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), said Mr. Bush's plan was a "bitter disappointment," essentially creating a guest-worker program that would relegate immigrants to "second-class status." The 20-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus called it a "modern-day rewrite of the 1940s bracero program."
The president's plan leaves the details to be worked out by Congress through legislation, and within days of its release, a bipartisan bill with a different approach was introduced by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, and Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. That approach would tie work to the prospect of legal residency for illegal immigrants currently working in the United States. Among other things, to gain permanent legal residency, immigrants would have to work at least four years in the country (one of those after the reforms are enacted) and pass extensive background checks. And days after that legislation was unveiled, a group of congressional leaders also released a Democratic Statement of Principles on Immigration Policy aimed at defining broad goals for legislation and reform.
Both developments have drawn concern over their details, but also have generally drawn praise as being moves in the right direction toward meaningful debate over reform. The NCLR notes that with the bipartisan legislation, it would seek to expand its labor protections, but also says it "appears to strike more of a balance between the needs of businesses who rely on immigrant workers and the workers themselves by providing a path to permanent legal status, more clearly defined labor protections, and a smaller temporary-worker program." The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund also generally supported the bipartisan legislation, saying it would work with Congress on overall immigration policy reform that would provide equal labor protections for workers and a path to permanent-residency status.
Additional proposals and legislative initiatives are expected to be unveiled throughout the spring and summer, and could become a key tool in courting Hispanic voters as the presidential election nears. But experts say developing details of any legislative reform will take months, and any reform is unlikely to be passed by Congress before November.
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