President Bush will consider granting legal residency to illegal aliens from all countries, not just Mexicans, he said Thursday.
"We'll consider all folks here," Bush said in the Oval Office.
Per the recommendation of a task force headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft, Bush is weighing a proposal to grant guest-worker status and eventually legal residency to some of the 3 million Mexicans who illegally reside in this country.
After last week's recommendation, critics quickly charged that the proposal would exclude millions of others trying to gain lawful entry into the United States. "I am troubled by this distinction that has been drawn between Mexicans and everybody else," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said recently.
In his first public remarks on the matter, Bush did not elaborate on who might be eligible. His staff is currently studying the recommendation from the task force.
However, Bush made clear he opposed granting instant legal residency to any group.
"I oppose blanket amnesty. The American people need to know that," Bush said.
"I do believe, though, that when we find willing employer and willing employee, we ought to match the two," Bush said. "We ought to make it easier for people who want to employ somebody, who are looking for workers, to be able to hire people who want to work."
The president left many questions unanswered, such as whether a guest-worker program would lead to legal residency for all those affected; whether the immigrants would be given preferential treatment by worker specialty, family ties, or some other criteria; and when he might act.
This came as the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would extend the deadline for illegal immigrants to apply for visas by an extra year.
The House passed a similar bill in May, but only agreed to extend the deadline for illegal immigrants to apply for visas by four months. The White House has said Bush favors a longer period of time than the four months.
Approximately 640,000 illegal immigrants were eligible under the Legal Immigration and Family Equity Act to apply for visas without leaving the country, but it expired April 30. The Senate bill would extend the law until April 30, 2002.
The law applied to illegal immigrants who are spouses or relatives of U.S. citizens, legal residents or employees sponsored by employers. They had to have been in the country on Dec. 21, 2000, to be eligible.
Kevin Rooney, acting commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, told Congress earlier this month that the agency favors six to 12 more months because the INS was slow to come up with regulations, which delayed the application process while the law was in effect.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.