Bishops Hail Bush Plan For Illegals

WASHINGTON — President George Bush wants to bring “hardworking men and women condemned to fear and insecurity” from the shadows of American society.

He is calling on Congress to reform the nation's immigration laws by transforming approximately 8 million illegal immigrants into “temporary workers” and possibly putting them on track for permanent residency and citizenship.

The president announced his plan at a White House press conference Jan. 7.

The plan would expand the nation's guest-worker permit program — previously restricted to a few high-tech and medical-care occupations considered critical to the American economy — to any skilled or unskilled worker who can show proof of employment in the United States.

The three-year temporary-worker permits would be renewable for an as-yet-unspecified number of years and would allow the guest workers to bring their families to the United States during the term of their permit. Temporary workers could also travel legally between the United States and their home countries.

While in the country, they could pursue permanent residency under an expanded immigration quota — now at 1 million people per year — or they could accrue Social Security benefits, payable outside the United States to those who choose to return to their native land.

The plan was proposed prior to the president's meeting with Latin American leaders at the Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, Jan. 12-13. It is especially important to Mexicans, who account for more than half of all illegal migrants in the country, as well as Central Americans, who have made the expensive and dangerous trip north to find work in the United States.

‘Very Interesting’

The proposed reform is short of the general amnesty sought by Mexican President Vicente Fox, who called the Bush plan “very interesting.” It has been greeted with cautious support from immigration advocates and Catholic Church leaders along the border with Mexico, who praise the principles outlined in Bush's speech but say they will need to see the details as the plan is approved by Congress.

“This is a great start and an important shift in thinking,” said Auxiliary Bishop Jose Gomez of the Denver Archdiocese. “It's short on specifics, and it may not go far enough, but it acknowledges our economic realities and the dignity of immigrant workers.”

Bishop Gomez, born and raised in Mexico, served as a priest for the Opus Dei prelature in Spain and Mexico until moving to Katy, Texas, in 1987 to minister to the Hispanic community along the Texas-Chihuahua border. He has been a longtime advocate of immigration reform and said that after the disappointment of post-Sept. 11 policy, “this proposal shows real courage.”

“President Bush was a popular governor with Texas Hispanics for a reason,” he said. “He's a decent man who tried honestly to understand their concerns. So I don't think he needed much of a push in coming up with this latest proposal. It's consistent with the way he's usually operated.”

“Opportunities offered by work in the United States are a magnet for anyone who wants to build a better life,” Bishop Gomez continued. “They need work and we need workers.”

Taking a more critical view of the president's proposal, Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., said it amounts to a reward for those who break the law, both the workers and the companies that employ them.

“They are at pains to say that this isn't amnesty, but it accords legal status to illegal aliens,” he said. “So it's really an amnesty.”

Krikorian also warned that, despite a provision that companies make a good-faith effort to fill positions domestically, the proposal “provides for the importation of millions of new foreign workers by opening up the U.S. labor market to anyone else around the planet.”

In the name of compassion for immigrants, this pits the poor against the poorer, he said.

“Employers can import workers from anywhere,” he said. “You can have Nigerians being brought in to replace Mexicans because they'll work for less.”

“The solution is not amnesty, which will just encourage more immigration,” he said. “We need to start enforcing the law.”

Krikorian points to the 400,000 illegal workers each year who either normalize their status or return home.

“This number is being overwhelmed by the 800,000 new illegal immigrants who come every year,” he said, “but if you enforce the law, the number of illegal workers will decline, through attrition.”

Positive Plan?

“It's what the president's proposal doesn't say that is concerning immigration and human-rights organizations in Mexico, said Erica Dahl-Bredine, country manager for Catholic Relief Services’ Mexico Program in Tucson, Ariz.

“All of the Mexican representatives I've talked to, across the board, agree that this is a positive development,” she said, “but there still is a lot of skepticism about whether the United States is committed to meaningful reform.”

“The president made a good step forward by acknowledging the contribution that immigrants have been making, but nobody is sure the proposal itself goes far enough,” she said. “They want to see whether there will be meaningful worker protection and a path to citizenship or if this will just create a permanent underclass.”

Specifically, Dahl-Bredine said, they want to know more about the permit-renewal process.

“There's a lot of concern about undocumented workers opening themselves up to deportation at the end of three years,” she said. “If there's no guarantee they can stay, there's not much incentive to come forward.”

For Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of the Diocese of Las Cruces, N.M., the president's speech was “very beneficial. His words were very magnanimous,” the bishop said, “but it will be interesting to see what Congress does with this.”

The diocese, which borders Mexico, is at the forefront of efforts to assist undocumented workers in obtaining legal status. Because of this, Bishop Ramirez said he is concerned about the lack of a specific process for moving from temporary worker to permanent resident.

“It's hard to judge because nobody seems to have seen anything [in detail], but it doesn't seem to go far enough,” Bishop Ramirez said. “Say they get a temporary visa; what happens after that?“

“It's still a Band-Aid approach that doesn't cure the situation,” he said. “However, I think this could be the opening of a door, and that could be significant. Once the door is open, it may open even wider in the future.”

Philip S. Moore writes from Vail, Arizona.