ASHINGTON, Aug. 3 — For the first time since the
attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, several Republicans in Congress are pushing for
broad legislation that would regulate the flow of foreign workers into the
country and potentially legalize millions of illegal employees.
Senator John McCain and Representatives Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake, all
Republicans from Arizona, introduced bills in July that would grant
permanent residency over several years to foreign workers who enter the
country legally and to illegal workers already in the United States.
Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, also introduced a guest worker
bill last month.
The measures have been criticized by liberal advocacy groups that
contend that they do too little for immigrants and by conservative
Republicans who say they go too far. White House officials say they have
not taken a stance on the bills, and their proponents do not expect them
to pass this year.
But critics on both sides of the political divide said the proposals
were still significant because they constituted the first time Republicans
in Congress had pushed aggressively for comprehensive changes in
immigration laws since talks on the issue between President Bush and
President Vicente Fox of Mexico collapsed after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Fox had been working on a long-term strategy to
regulate immigration flows from Mexico and legalize the status of millions
of illegal immigrants already in this country. The plan appealed to
Hispanics and to big businesses, important political constituencies for
the Bush administration.
"To have Republicans stepping up and proposing these important but
imperfect bills is something of a breakthrough," said Frank Sharry, who
runs the National Immigration Forum, a policy group.
"To me, it's the post-9/11 signal that it's not a matter of if, it's a
matter of when we're going to legalize more migration so that we can
better regulate it," Mr. Sharry said.
Mr. McCain said he expected the plans to be attacked from "both ends of
the spectrum" and that the legislation would face many political
Advocates for immigrants said that the bills lacked adequate safeguards
for workers and created a complicated and arduous legalization process. On
the other side, Representative Tom Tancredo, Republican of Colorado, has
criticized the plans as an attack on America's borders.
"It's really amnesty on the installment plan," said Mr. Tancredo, the
leader of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, which favors
reducing immigration. "They are even more ambitious in their amnesty
proposal than some of the Democrats I've seen. We have to watch this
Mr. McCain and other supporters of the proposals said that many illegal
immigrants did jobs that Americans do not want and that legalizing such
workers would help many businesses. They also said they hoped that the
legislation would help curtail or end the abuses some illegal immigrants
suffer. Many die during desert crossings or suffer at the hands of
smugglers and ruthless employers.
"We all know it is an issue that must be addressed," Mr. McCain said in
a telephone interview. "The status quo is no longer acceptable. This
starts the debate."
The bills would allow the number of worker visas to be determined by
the demand for workers. Jobs listed on a Labor Department registry for 14
days and not filled by Americans could be given to an immigrant guest
worker. The jobs would be advertised every three years to ensure that
American workers were not interested.
Foreign workers who apply for temporary work visas while living abroad
could apply for legal permanent residency after working in the United
States for three years. Illegal immigrants already here would have to pay
a $1,500 fine and wait for three years before applying for permanent
residency if an employer sponsored the application, or six years without
an employer sponsor.
"We will be able to funnel 99 percent of the currently undocumented
population through ports of entry, where they can be documented, screened
and monitored to give the U.S. a better understanding of who is living
within the nation's borders," Mr. Kolbe said in a speech in Tucson last
Mr. Cornyn's bill would allow illegal immigrants to receive guest
worker status if sponsored by their employers. But they would have to
return home after three years. Once there, their applications for
permanent residency would be given priority.
Democrats say Mr. Cornyn's bill would separate families by requiring
workers to leave the United States to apply for green cards.
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Mr. Cornyn, said the senator was pleased
that the measure had stirred debate. "It has sparked discussion and it
will continue to do so," Mr. Stewart said.