President Bush proposed a plan Wednesday that would allow illegal immigrants working in the United States to stay here if their employers vouch for their jobs.

Saying U.S. laws should allow workers to enter the country to fill the jobs Americans are not willing to take, Bush said: "We must make our immigration law more rational and more humane, and I believe we can do so without jeopardizing the livelihood of American citizens."

The "temporary worker program" (search) would also allow immigrants to come to the United States if they can prove they have a job lined up and they don't plan to stay here indefinitely.

"Over the generations, we have received energetic, ambitious, optimistic people from all over the world ... our country is a welcoming society," Bush said. "America is a stronger and better nation because of the hard work and faith and the entrepreneurial spirit of immigrants."

The president's plan aims to relieve the pressures on hotel maids, meat cutters, landscapers and a host of other illegal workers.

Plus, the administration hopes to better secure the nation's borders and the homeland by making sure even illegals are documented.

"As a nation that values immigrants and depends on immigrants, we should have immigration laws that work and make us proud," the president said. "Yet today we do not. Instead we see many employers turning to the illegal labor market. We see millions of hard-working men and women condemned to fear and insecurity in a massive undocumented economy.

"Illegal entry across our borders makes more difficult the urgent task of securing the homeland."

If the United States can better account for those who enter the country, Bush said, it would alleviate current problems, such as illegal immigrants being hesitant to report crimes and authorities having to deal with illegal immigrant issues rather than focusing on the "true threats" terrorists pose.

"America's acting on a basic belief that our borders should be open to legal travel and honest trade," Bush said. "Our borders should be shut and barred tight to criminals, drug traders, drug traffickers … and terrorists."

The proposal comes in advance of a meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox (search) next week at the Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico.

The president had put immigration reform at the top of his agenda while campaigning for the presidency in 2000, but after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, it was placed on the back burner as administration officials and legislators worked to beef up border security.

Now that Bush is into his second campaign for the presidency, he hopes to expand support among the Hispanic community, which broke ranks in 2000 by voting in considerable numbers for the Republican candidate. About one-third of Hispanic voters supported Bush in 2000.

No Blanket Amnesty

The proposal is also likely to sit well with business leaders who already employ illegal workers in low-wage jobs. Officials estimate that about 8 million illegal immigrants, half of them Mexican, live in the United States already.

The president's plan would allow workers who live in the United States a reprieve from deportation if employers agree to give them jobs for three years and are unable to find American citizens willing to do the job. Would-be immigrants would also be allowed to apply if they line up a job in the United States.

Illegal workers would pay a fee to apply immediately for a green card for permanent U.S. residency. The applicant would still have to compete for the visa, but would not be deported for three years while the application is under consideration.

The number of green cards (search) will be increased but the total number of new cards is not yet decided. Currently, the United States issues 1 million green cards per year, though only 140,000 of them are employment-based. The program would be separate from the temporary visa program that allows technical experts to work in certain sectors of the economy.

If workers' applications are not processed in the first three years of their employment, then workers would have to return to their countries to await final approval.

Conservatives opposed to the idea of rewarding immigrants who break the law by illegally entering the United States say the president is basically giving blanket amnesty and encouraging more illegal immigration.

But Bush said that's exactly what he's not doing.

"I oppose amnesty, placing undocumented workers on the automatic path to citizenship," he said. "Granting amnesty encourages violation of our laws and perpetuates illegal immigration. America is a welcoming country, but citizenship must not be the automatic reward for violating the laws of America."

Bush has sought to address conservatives' concerns by proposing incentives to encourage workers to return home when their visas expire, including allowing them to collect Social Security (search) benefits, which they would be contributing to as legal workers, after they return home.

Other opponents of the program say it doesn't do enough to reform the system, despite provisions that would allow dependents to join their parents and freedom of movement inside the United States.

"Extremely disappointing," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza (search). "They're proposing to invite people to be guest workers without providing any meaningful opportunity to remain in the United States to become legal permanent residents."

The National Immigration Forum (search) also issued a statement saying key components of the plan seem to create a near-permanent underclass of workers with only temporary legal standing in this country.

"The White House also seems to ignore or inadequately address immigrant families, and without provisions to ensure families can remain intact the proposal will only encourage more undocumented migration," the statement continued.

More Than 'Window Dressing?'

While House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi welcomed the movement on the issue, "immigration policy must not be the subject of election-year window dressing," said the California Democrat.

"While the president's framework is a start, we still need a committed effort to enact family-centered immigration policies that will reunite families, to end the uncertainty that thousands of businesses and millions of workers face every day, and to protect the nation."

She said many Democrats are instead supporting legislation like that sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., which would enable 500,000 agricultural workers to become legal permanent residents through earned legalization. They also support California Democratic Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard's DREAM Act that would provide young immigrants with higher educational opportunities.

But Republicans heralded Bush's plan as a better way to protect the nation's borders.

"Immigration is a national security issue for all Americans and a matter of life and death for many living along our borders," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

"A comprehensive temporary worker program will dramatically improve the situation at our borders," added Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.