President George W. Bush's immigration reform proposal was greeted Wednesday with reactions that ranged from warm praise to categorical condemnation.
While Republicans described it as an ambitious plan and a boon to millions of undocumented workers, Democrats and immigration activists dismissed it as an election-year campaign manoeuver.
The House of Representatives Democrat bloc, with its 22 Hispanic lawmakers, condemned the initiative as a campaign gimmick, a modern version of the 1940s Bracero program treating the undocumented as if they were "disposable." They predicted that the undocumented would refuse to register in the plan for fear of being "on file" and thus subject to possible deportation.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, one of the nine contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, quickly issued a statement criticizing Bush's proposal.
"The right kind of immigration reform will ensure that immigrants who work hard, pay their taxes and play by the rules have the opportunity to become permanent members of the American community," Edwards said.
Bush's plan seeks both to further his reelection and to meet the needs of the labour market, by pairing up workers with companies willing to employ them, provided no Americans are available to fill those openings, critics added.
Experts consulted said that although they had reservations about Bush's proposal, the plan still acknowledged immigrant contributions to the country's economic growth, adding that the current immigration system was ineffective. "It is historic for a president to talk about the undocumented in such a positive way, but these words must translate into action" in Congress, said National Immigration Forum head Frank Sharry.
NIF and other pro-immigrant groups expected a more generous plan in terms of family reunification, legal status for undocumented workers, protection against employer abuse and "a path toward citizenship." These groups echoed Democratic complaints that the plan falls short, since it would make the undocumented second rate citizens.
National Council of La Raza president Raul Yzaguirre said he was "extremely disappointed," as the plan "is at best an empty promise, and at worst a political ploy aimed at vulnerable immigrants and those of us who care deeply about them." In a statement issued by his organization, Yzaguirre described Bush's proposal as appearing "to offer the business community full access to the immigrant workers it needs while providing very little to the workers themselves." Part of the fear lies in the fact that the guest-worker plan may be only a conveyor belt to deport the undocumented when the initiative expires in three years' time. If this is so, the workers would sense the trap and refuse to register in the program, said Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The initiative also drew fire from the Republican Party's conservative wing, which views the undocumented as a threat to national security requiring tighter U.S. immigration control at the porous border.
Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Col.), an outspoken opponent of liberalizing immigration laws, warned about the danger of rewarding those who flaunt the law with a legal - albeit temporary - system.
But most Republican legislators supported the plan and so did other Hispanic groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Latino Coalition.