When I reported in November 2003 about the prospects for
immigration reform, I was cautiously optimistic that the debate
might sneak back onto the national stage. Trial balloon, or
"tester," legislation recently had been floated on Capitol Hill;
Mexico continued to press publicly for an agreement with the United
States; and there were subtle signals from the White House that it
might be interested in moving forward with a limited proposal if
homeland security concerns could be satisfied first. What a
difference two months make.
On Jan. 7, President Bush re-energized the immigration debate by
placing the immigration conversation front and center on his policy
agenda. Probably the most dramatic immigration plan since the 1942
bracero program, which provided Mexican field labor to Southwestern
farmers whose farm hands had been drafted during World War II, Bush
proposed a new temporary worker program to match willing foreign
workers with willing U.S. employers when no U.S. workers can be
found to fill jobs. Bush also outlined his principles for
immigration reform, which he said were necessary to fix a broken
system and promote compassion for those who have helped make the
United States prosperous.
Bush's plan would allow workers abroad and those already
illegally employed in the United States to obtain renewable
three-year work visas to take jobs unfilled by U.S. workers.
Undocumented workers already in the United States could enter the
program immediately after providing proof of employment.
Participating workers in the program would be entitled to the same
employment rights and protections to which legal workers are
entitled. The plan also calls for an increase in the number of
green cards for those wishing to reside in the United States
permanently. The plan neither rewards anyone illegally in the
United States with "amnesty" nor offers anyone preference over
those who have waited to enter the United States legally.
Bush left the task of determining the fine details to Congress.
But he's to be congratulated for tackling such a complex,
contentious topic for two reasons. First, it's the right thing to
do. Despite the protests of those who would have the United States
wall off its southern neighbors, the nation's growing reliance on
foreign labor is undeniable. And yet the current system fails to
provide enough visas for employers to fill jobs they cannot satisfy
domestically. Roofing contractors, in particular, face an enduring
shortage of workers because there are not enough domestic workers
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