WASHINGTON – President Bush's (search) proposal to allow certain illegal immigrants working in the United States to remain here drew fire from Democrats and even some Republicans, even though the plan was seen as a likely draw to Hispanic voters this election season.
"I'm not for allowing illegals to stay in this country," said Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va. "I think they should have to go back to their home countries ... and get in line with Jack, Suzy and John and apply for a guest worker position."
Democrats were united in calling the plan a political ploy that offers a false promise of legitimacy for the undocumented workers (search), while advocacy groups questioned whether it would actually do anything to help immigrants.
But the president drew on the nation's history as a land of immigrants to argue that allowing most undocumented workers already living in the United States to stay put was the right thing to do.
"We should have immigration laws that work and make us proud. Yet today we do not," Bush said Wednesday in the White House's East Room, which he entered to loud cheers from dozens of representatives from Hispanic (search) organizations and immigration groups.
Decrying a system that now has "millions of hardworking men and women condemned to fear and insecurity in a massive undocumented economy," Bush urged Congress to approve a temporary worker program.
The program would be open to all undocumented workers now in the United States. Applicants who can show they have a job — or for those still in their home countries, a job offer — would get an initial three-year work permit that would be renewable for an unspecified period.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (search), R-Utah, praised Bush for opening the debate and said that a new immigration policy should "extend a welcoming hand to those whose presence will benefit our nation and our economy."
Allowing undocumented workers, who make up an unknown percentage of the approximately 8 million illegal immigrants now in the United States, to work legally here would benefit all Americans, Bush argued. He said it would make the nation's borders more secure by allowing officials to focus more on the real threats to the country and would meet U.S. employers' dire need for workers willing to take the low-wage, low-skill jobs unwanted by many Americans.
It also is the right thing to do, Bush said, to pull immigrants who now live in the shadows of American society under the protection of U.S. labor laws, allow them to travel freely back and forth to their home countries, bring dependents they can support here with them and grant them the confidence to talk openly to authorities about crimes and exploitation on the job.
"One of the primary reasons America became a great power in the 20th century is because we welcomed the talent and the character and the patriotism of immigrant families," the president said. "We must make our immigration laws more rational and more humane. And I believe we can do so without jeopardizing the livelihoods of American citizens."
But even as Bush made the announcement, the tough sales job ahead for the White House was apparent as the president's plan drew heated criticism from both the right and the left.
Many conservatives balked at the idea of any reward for people who broke the law by coming to the United States.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., predicted Bush's "dangerous and unworkable" proposals would be rejected by Congress. "Neither Mexicans nor anyone else will go through the hassle and paperwork of seeking legal jobs as long as the border is porous and employers can ignore the laws with impunity," he said.
Bush said the program does not provide blanket amnesty — which he defined as an "automatic path to citizenship" — for foreigners who are in the United States illegally.
"America is a welcoming country, but citizenship must not be the automatic reward for violating the laws of America," he said.
While visiting Mexico on Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said he was confident that Congress would pass the proposal "because it is a security issue."
Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez welcomed the proposal, but said the United States needs a more concrete plan to help migrants.
But workers accepted into the program would be allowed to immediately, with an employer's sponsorship, begin applying for a green card, which allows permanent U.S. residency. Although these workers would get no advantage over other applicants already in the long line for green cards, an illegal immigrant who attempted to apply now would simply be deported.
With about half the illegal immigrants estimated to be from Mexico, the program was designed in part to win Bush increased support among the powerful Hispanic voting bloc in the November presidential election. He won just over one-third of that constituency in 2000.
It also was aimed at smoothing the United States' sometimes-rocky relations with Mexico ahead of a visit by Bush there next week. But the plan was not the broad and immediate amnesty program that Mexican President Vicente Fox has wanted, and the Mexican government's response was tepid. Fox, after a call Wednesday morning from Bush outlining the plan, called it merely "very interesting."
John Gay, co-chairman of the Essential Workers Immigration Coalition, a group of businesses and trade associations that have pushed for immigration reform, said the president "has gotten the big things right" but was worried about the details.
"We're going to have a lot of work in front of us, though, to make a workable immigration reform bill out of these principles," he said.
Some Republican lawmakers who have been working on the issue, including Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona and Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, criticized Bush for not including in his plan a guaranteed way to get permanent residency without leaving the country, as well as for being silent on many details.
Rep. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., House Democratic Caucus chairman and the highest-ranking Hispanic in Congress, said few immigrants would want to participate in the program because they know they will be deported after their term is up. Bush's principles say that "he wants their sweat and labor, but he ultimately doesn't want them," Menendez said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.