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Lieberman Offers Citizenship Plan for Illegal Immigrants

September 04, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Embracing a top priority of Latino and union activists, Democratic presidential contender Joe Lieberman on Wednesday offered a plan that would allow millions of illegal immigrants to earn American citizenship.

The Connecticut senator joined his party's other leading presidential contenders in urging an overhaul of immigration laws to legitimize the flow of workers from Mexico and provide a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 3.5 million illegal immigrants already living in the United States.

Lieberman issued his proposal on the eve of a Democratic presidential debate tonight in Albuquerque, which is expected to focus on the concerns of Latino families. His plan follows similar declarations from the other top Democratic presidential contenders and the introduction of a conceptually similar immigration-reform proposal from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Reps. Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake, also Republicans from Arizona.

Under Lieberman's plan, illegal immigrants who have been in the country for at least five years, paid taxes and passed a security check would be eligible for citizenship.

The plan would also allow employers to import temporary "guest workers" in areas of the country with "demonstrated labor shortages for unskilled and semi-skilled workers," according to a campaign statement.

To help make such a program more palatable to union and immigrant groups, which have traditionally opposed such ideas, Lieberman says he would allow such guest workers to join unions and also to earn citizenship after a period of probably around five years.

Lieberman's plan tracks the "grand compromise" some business, labor, Latino and religious groups have been advocating since 2001: trading "earned legalization" for illegal immigrants already here -- a top priority for labor and immigrant groups -- for the guest worker program, a key business concern.

With varying degrees of specificity, Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.), Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean have all endorsed such a deal as well.

Immigration advocates say this flurry of activity suggests that the legalization cause, which has been derailed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, may be stirring again.

"The bottom line is the immigration reform debate is back," says Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, a leading Latino group.

But any legalization plan still faces an uphill fight in Congress because most Republican conservatives staunchly oppose the idea. Such opposition helped cool the White House on the idea after President Bush opened negotiations with Mexico on a sweeping reform plan in 2001; Bush essentially shelved the issue after the terrorist attacks raised concerns about legalizing foreigners who had entered the country illegally.

In releasing his plan, Lieberman argued that legalization could improve the nation's security by bringing "honest, hard-working immigrants out of the shadows" and allowing government to focus on the real threats.

"Nobody really believes that Mexican immigration is part of the terrorist threat to America," he said. "Sept. 11 is a poor excuse for not trying to go ahead and create some balance and fairness in immigration policy."

The convergence of the leading Democrats around "earned legalization" and a guest worker program increases the odds that immigration reform will be an important contrast in the 2004 general election as both parties compete for Latino votes.

From the outset of his presidency, Bush has aggressively sought to increase his support among Latinos. But although the Bush administration began the push for immigration reform by discussing a version of the "grand compromise" with Mexican President Vicente Fox in the summer of 2001, lobbyists on the issue say they see no sign that the White House is eager to push the cause again.

"This is a defining issue for the fastest-growing group of new voters in the country, and Bush had a tremendous lead in framing this issue," said Frank Sharry, who heads the National Immigration Forum. "But his inaction is leaving it wide open for a Democrat to exploit it."

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