MONTERREY, Mexico (AP) _ Congress' new immigration plan was bad news for tens of thousands of poor Mexicans who depend on a U.S. guestworker program for temporary jobs in agriculture and other seasonal work, such as landscaping and construction.
Millions of would-be migrants have been holding tight to President Bush's promise that they could one day apply for temporary visas to get a glimpse of the American dream.
At the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, which hands out more temporary visas than any other consulate or embassy in the world, Edmundo Bermudez, a 36-year-old from the northern city of Durango, said the plan rewards those who have already entered the United States illegally, while shutting out those who stayed home hoping to gain legal passage.
He was especially offended by the plan to give preference to migrants with degrees and skills.
``The United States already has enough people with college degrees. Who is going to cut their tobacco?'' asked Bermudez, who has been working intermittently in the U.S. for the past eight years. In Mexico, he makes about $10 a day, while in the U.S. he earns almost that _ $8 _ in an hour.
The proposal, unveiled Thursday in Washington, is devoid of Bush's original plan to grant three-year visas to migrants living in their native countries. Instead, it focuses on securing the border and giving illegal residents a path toward legal residency, while gradually giving preference for new visas to those with advanced degrees and highly specialized skills.
Many in Mexico _ and U.S. employers who say they need workers for low-skilled jobs _ had hoped Congress would expand the guestworker program and allow more to cross legally, work a few months and then return home with their savings to build homes and businesses.
Gilberto Escalante, a 41-year-old fisherman from Topolobampo in Sinaloa state, said the current temporary visa program is better than the congressional plan because it gives Mexicans the option to freely enter and leave the U.S. while maintaining their lives in Mexico _ instead of forcing them to choose between the two countries.
``We don't want the house or the latest car in the U.S. We want to go and work so that our families can have a good life in Mexico,'' said Escalante, who came to the industrial hub of Monterrey to apply for a visa to work on fish and shrimp boats off the coast of Mississippi.
Yet the congressional plan came as welcome news to the millions of Mexicans who depend on the $23 billion sent home each year by Mexicans living in the U.S., many illegally.
The proposal would allow illegal immigrants to obtain a ``Z visa'' and, after paying fees and a $5,000 fine, ultimately get on track for permanent residency, which could take between eight and 13 years. Heads of households would have to return to their home countries first.
It is also good news for the Mexican government, which has spent years lobbying the U.S. for a comprehensive immigration reform that allows more people to work legally in the U.S. Many had feared the U.S. would only approve more border security measures, such as adding to National Guard troops at the border and other high-tech security measures.
Victor Aviles, a spokesman for Mexico's Foreign Relations Department, cautiously welcomed the initiative.
``The Mexican government hopes that the different actors involved in the debate and eventual approval of this initiative take advantage of the opportunity it presents,'' he said in a statement.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said debate would begin on Monday, but he cautioned, ``I don't know if the immigration legislation is going to bear fruit and we're going to be able to pass it.''
Miguel Garcia, 35, of Maravatio in the western Mexican state of Michoacan, said he was glad that the U.S. was giving illegal migrants a chance at fixing their status.
``They shouldn't punish people who are just trying to get ahead,'' he said.
In the small, northern desert town of Huachichil, migrant recruiter Rene Urbano encouraged Mexicans who work in potato fields and apple orchards to continue signing up for possible visas, arguing that he would work to find them jobs with U.S. employers.
``They are rewarding those who are doing things wrong and abandoning my boys who need work,'' he said, adding that there are millions of migrants waiting for U.S. jobs.
One of his clients, Gustavo Ruiz, a 31-year-old father of two small children, is normally working in U.S. fields by now. But today he is still waiting for an offer at the one-bedroom concrete home he built on the edge of the Mexican desert, with money he earned picking tobacco, cucumber and sweet potatoes.
He said he would not mind moving his family to the U.S. and trying to become legal residents, but his wife refuses.
``My roots are here,'' Elidia Moncada said. ``My family is here. They say it's nice there, but I don't want to leave.''