In a blatant election-year gambit aimed at the Hispanic vote, President George Bush offered yesterday legal status and a virtual amnesty to millions of illegal workers.
Most of those who will benefit from the sweeping overhaul of United States immigration laws are from central America, and are already in the country.
Mr Bush's proposals, set out in a speech at the White House, are his first major policy initiative of this election year. They are an attempt to straighten out a system that is close to breakdown - but also a clear pitch to Hispanics, a constituency that Republican strategists are ardently wooing ahead of the November vote.
Hispanics, who have called for changes in immigration legislation, traditionally lean to the Democrats. Their growing number is threatening the Republican grip on states such as Arizona, which is high on the Democrats' target list of states carried by Mr Bush in 2000.
Under the scheme, undocumented workers would be able to apply for temporary "guest worker" status for an initial period - probably three years. This could be renewed an unspecified number of times.
Once they were admitted to the programme, such workers would be granted most benefits enjoyed by US employees, including the minimum wage. They would obtain social security numbers and be able to apply for driving licences, as well as the green card conferring permanent resident status.
Just how many people could be affected is uncertain. But at least eight million, and perhaps 12 million, illegal immigrants are in the US, alongside the official population of 290 million. More than half are believed to be from Mexico, whose President, Vicente Fox, will meet Mr Bush at next week's western hemisphere summit in Monterrey, Mexico. The initiative should give a boost to the frosty relations between the US and its neighbour.
A similar scheme was under examination by the two countries in the summer of 2001, but was shelved after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, which turned protection of US borders into an all-consuming national priority. Mr Bush acknowledged yesterday that the US economy and society function largely thanks to undocumented immigrants prepared to do the menial jobs. The aim, officials say, is to "match willing workers with willing employers to fix a broken system". It was "a win-win situation," Scott McLellan, Mr Bush's spokesman, said.
Under the scheme, legalised guest workers would be sponsored by their employers. People living in foreign countries would be able to apply, if no American citizens were available to take the jobs in question.
The initiative is being assailed from left and right. Conservatives on Capitol Hill, where the plan is likely to encounter resistance by some usual allies of Mr Bush, say it amounts to an amnesty for individuals who have broken the law by coming to the US. The White House hopes to win over critics who say the country risks being swamped by foreigners with incentives for immigrants to return home. These will include provisions for pensions payable in their native countries, based on their working years in the US.
Hispanic and civil rights groups say the measures do not go far enough. By having to depend on "sponsors", immigrant workers may be even more at the mercy of their employers, it is claimed. In addition, people on the programme seeking a green card could find themselves in a legal no-man's land if their initial employment period expired before they obtained their green card - a wait that could reach more than six years. Mr Bush is proposing to increase the number of green cards issued, but it is unclear by how much.
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