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Immigration Reform on House Democrats' Minds

Politics: 'Earned legalization,' temporary worker program are part of proposal.


MIAMI BEACH — Hoping to revive the stalled debate over immigration reform, the leading House Democrat said Monday that his party soon would introduce legislation that would allow millions of illegal immigrants to move toward U.S. citizenship.

In a speech here to the National Council of La Raza, a leading Latino group, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said that under the Democratic plan, undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for at least five years and who have worked for at least two years could become legal residents if they pass a background check by the FBI and law enforcement.

"These proposals reward hard work with fair play, and help us in our fight against terrorism," Gephardt said.

Although details remain to be determined, Gephardt said, the plan would include a new program to import temporary workers from countries such as Mexico--a top business priority.

The notion of combining a temporary worker program with an "earned legalization" follows the model that President Bush floated last year in talks with Mexico. But amid intense resistance to any form of legalization from many congressional Republican conservatives, Bush began to back away from the idea late last summer.

In September, Mexican President Vicente Fox appeared to give immigration reform new life when he visited Washington and pressed Bush to finalize a plan by the end of 2001. But only a few days later, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks put the issue on hold.

Gephardt's announcement marks the first major effort to revive the process. The idea still faces intense resistance from those who consider any path toward legalization for illegal immigrants a form of amnesty that rewards lawbreaking. And the attacks gave opponents a powerful new argument in their case, raising security concerns about legalizing foreigners who illegally entered the country.

In an interview Monday, Gephardt argued that legalization would enhance U.S. security by providing officials a clearer picture of the illegal immigrant population. "This is a way to bring people into a legal process and give us more sense of who is here and who is willing to play by the rules and who isn't," he said.

Negative reaction to the plan was swift. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies--a group that supports reduced immigration--called it an "astonishingly bad idea. It mocks the rule of law. It rewards lawbreakers. It will encourage more illegal immigration."

Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo (R-Colo.), a leading congressional foe of efforts to liberalize legalization rules, dismissed the proposal as "a backdoor amnesty plan" and a "political ploy" aimed at gaining Latino support for Democrats.

Gephardt said the plan would be introduced within two weeks. He acknowledged it has little prospect of passing this year. But it could give Democrats a valuable calling card with Latino voters during the fall congressional campaigns and increase pressure on the Bush administration to specify its own plans.

Gephardt "is putting down a marker that we are getting back to the legalization debate in a serious way," said Cecilia Munoz, La Raza's vice president for policy.

White House officials, while saying they needed to see more details, expressed concern that the plan would make it too easy for illegal immigrants to achieve legal status. The administration has been considering ideas to require continued employment by illegal immigrants seeking legalization.

According to House Democratic aides, the party plan will propose that illegal immigrants from all countries--not just Mexico--be allowed to pursue legalization. Illegal immigrants would have three years to apply for legal status. In addition to demonstrating five years of residency in the United States and two years of work and passing the background check, they would have to show that they have paid all state and federal taxes.

Anyone who passed those tests--as well as their spouses and children--would become a permanent legal resident. Under current law, permanent residents are eligible to apply for citizenship after five years.

As Gephardt described it, the House Democratic proposal follows the same political logic as the plan that Bush first floated last year. Both approaches envision a "grand compromise" to break the stalemate on immigration reform.

Republicans and business, while urging a temporary worker program, have generally opposed proposals to allow illegal immigrants to earn legal status. Democrats, unions and immigrant rights groups want legalization, but they have opposed temporary worker programs.

Times staff writer Michelle Munn contributed to this report.

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