Bush calls for new temporary-worker program. (White House photo)

President Bush's proposal for major changes in federal immigration policy sparked positive reaction from construction contractors, who view it as a way to ease the industry's worker shortages, but labor unions criticized the plan as too pro-business and lacking a way for undocumented immigrants to become full U.S. citizens. Moreover, the changes would require enacting legislation, a difficult task for such a contentious issue, especially in 2004's election-shortened congressional schedule.
The central element of Bush's plan, announced Jan. 7, is a new "temporary worker program." Under the proposal, a non-U.S. citizen who has a job, or job offer, would get a three-year permit that could be renewed. "But it will have an end," Bush added. Those who don't stay employed, or who violate the law, will have to leave the U.S., he said.

Undocumented workers now in the U.S. will have to pay a fee to sign up for the temporary worker permit. Those entering the country would be exempt from the fee.

The President said, "Out of common sense and fairness, our laws should allow willing workers to enter our country and fill jobs that Americans are not filling. We must make our immigration laws more rational, and more humane."

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Associated General Contractors CEO Stephen E. Sandherr called the Bush plan "a positive step towards immigration reform. The construction industry, which set another record for value of construction put in place, is creating jobs, but in many cases, no one is there to fill this need. This proposal is an opportunity to help contractors expand their workforce and create jobs and taxpayers."

But labor unions criticized the proposal. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called it "a hollow promise for hard-working undocumented workers" that "will serve large corporations' needs over those of immigrant workers and their families."

Laborers' union President Terence M. O'Sullivan worries that the proposal "appears to rely on making sure workers are beholden to a single employer in order to gain legal status." He also said Bush's plan falls short by omitting an avenue for undocumented workers to gain permanent citizenship. O'Sullivan said, "Any true and meaningful immigration reform must provide a clear path to legalization for immigrant workers."

There is opposition from the right, too. Bush insists his proposal doesn't provide "amnesty" for undocumented workers. But David A. Keene, Chairman of the American Conservative Union, said, “What we fear is that this amounts to little more than an attempt to redefine what has always been known as amnesty?If it walks like amnesty, talks like amnesty, it must be amnesty.”

A big question is whether immigration reform can get through Congress. Kelly Krauser, AGC's congressional relations director for labor, safety and risk management, says, "In order for any type of immigration bill to pass, it's going to have to be bipartisan."

She notes that Republicans in the Senate and House have introduced an immigration bill--the main sponsors are Sen. John McCain and Reps. Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake, all from Arizona. Krauser says that on the Democratic side, there are rumors that Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) are working on proposals, too.

But having Bush announce a proposal elevates immigration on the agenda. Krauser says, "We're just very enthusiastic that the issue is being discussed again. Immigration has been discussed since 9-11 but always in terms of keeping people out. And we are excited that this is an opportunity [to discuss] immigration in terms of what people can bring to our country."