EL PASO, Texas – Juan Muniz crosses the border from his native Mexico, his green card (search) in hand, every day to work in an El Paso department store. His hours have been cut and now he worries that a proposal by President Bush to make it easier for foreign nationals to work in the United States will mean more competition for already scarce jobs.
"We just want one job that pays well," Muniz's wife, Guadalupe, said Tuesday night as the couple returned to Juarez, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso.
Virtually silent on the immigration issue for two years, Bush will ask Congress on Wednesday to approve changes to immigration policy, saying they would make the country safer by giving officials a better idea of who is crossing the border, bolster the economy by fulfilling employers' needs and protect illegal workers' rights. Also, in a nod to those who oppose any reward to those who enter the United States illegally, Bush is including in his plan incentives to entice the workers to go back to their homelands.
There are an estimated 8 million to 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, perhaps half from Mexico.
"It would allow people to flow back and forth that are adopted residents," said Michael Breitinger, executive director of the El Paso Central Business Association (search). "I think informally, that's going on anyway."
Breitinger said the economic impact probably would be minimal in El Paso.
He said the association would like to see Mexico granted the same privileges as some of the country's other trading partners.
Breitinger said undocumented immigrants stand on street corners in many cities waiting to be picked up for work.
"They're doing it because nobody on this side of the border wants to do (those jobs)," he said.
The program will have to provide incentives to get workers to participate, said Wayne Cornelius, director of the University of California's Center for Comparative Immigration Studies (search) in San Diego.
"The existing, informal, unauthorized labor market with job offers being arranged before migration by relatives and friends already working in the U.S. works very efficiently and to the benefit of both workers and employers," Cornelius said. "What's in the new system for them?"
Claudia Smith, director of California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, an immigrant advocacy group in Oceanside, Calif., doubts a guest worker program would substantially reduce the number of people who die crossing the border.
"It will have some impact but there is no way (a) guest worker program can be big enough to meet the needs of Mexicans seeking work or the demand in the United States for undocumented labor," she said.
The Rev. Robin Hoover, founder of Humane Borders, a Tucson organization that set up water stations used by migrants stranded in the Arizona desert, said the proposal is "two years overdue."
Hoover hopes Bush's plan will grant legal status for migrants who are already here and for family members who live in the country.
"That's step number one and that needs to be first on the list," he said.
El Paso Mayor Joe Wardy said he supports any effort to address the Southwest border's shadow economy, which is fueled by undocumented immigrant labor.
However, Wardy said the border is dealing with security issues that won't change for the foreseeable future.
"There's got to be the right kind of work permits," he said.
Stephanie Cooper Caviness, president of the Foreign Trade Association, which represents industrial companies that include the Mexican maquiladoras, said her organization won't comment until it can study the details.
Maquiladoras opened along the border under the North American Free Trade Agreement to take advantage of low labor costs in Mexico. But many of those in Juarez and other border towns have closed as the jobs are moved to China and other places with even cheaper labor.
"It's good," said Christina Flores, a resident of Juarez who was shopping in El Paso. "There are many people who need to work (in the United States) because the factories have closed in Juarez."
Others are concerned that any program allowing undocumented workers to stay in the United States will reward and encourage illegal behavior.
"We always (have) to go back to the guys have been waiting to get into the country," said Pete Araujo, president of ABACO Customhouse Brokers, Inc., in El Paso. "It's a very ticklish issue. I'm a Republican and I support President Bush. Good luck to him on this one."