Bush, Fox Back Temporary Immigration

Friday, February 9th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Both President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox support boosting legal, temporary immigration to the United States. So do lawmakers from both parties. Even farm workers and the agricultural industry have found common ground.

Yet prospects for a new ``guest worker'' program, a likely topic when Bush and Fox meet Feb. 16, may not be much better now than they were last year, when powerful Republican senators killed a compromise plan.

At issue is whether guest workers could eventually become permanent U.S. residents. Farm worker advocates and Democratic congressional allies say that's essential; Republican immigration critics won't accept it.

``It's entirely possible that the differences between the Democrats and the Republicans could kill the deal,'' said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes guest worker programs.

The treatment of illegal aliens has been a sensitive issue in U.S.-Mexican relations, and both Bush and Fox, who took office Dec. 1, have stressed the need for change.

Mexico doesn't have enough jobs for its unskilled workers and wants its citizens to be allowed to work in the United States under protection of U.S. labor laws and without having to resort to illegal and perilous cross-border treks.

The agricultural industry has argued that a guest worker program could help cut illegal migration. Shortage of farm labor in the United States and cumbersome visa procedures for short-term foreign help prompt some farmers to operate with illegal alien workers.

In his presidential campaign, Bush made an expanded guest worker program one of his immigration priorities, along with strengthened border security and bisection of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization Services into separate agencies for enforcing immigration laws and for overseeing the immigration process.

Farm workers' advocates have been wary of guest worker programs, fearing they could drive down wages and reduce work opportunities. Last year, however, they and their congressional allies agreed to a compromise with a key element: that guest workers eventually could seek permanent residence in the United States.

Some Republicans, led by Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, objected, and the plan died in Congress.

Gramm plans to offer his own guest worker plan this year that offers no prospect of permanent residency.

His spokesman, Larry Neal, said Gramm wants to ensure that guest workers ``are well-treated while they work here, that they get the pay they earned, that they accumulate some wealth, ... that they accumulate skills. And at the end of the program, that they go home.''

Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers, said that would be ``totally unacceptable.''

``We will not support any kind of legislation dealing with guest workers that doesn't take care of legalizing farm workers that are currently here in the United States,'' Rodriguez said.

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who plans to introduce his own guest worker legislation, also considers an opportunity for permanent residency essential.

``These people are already here,'' said his spokeswoman, Caren Benjamin. ``They are part of the social and economic fabric of the country, and they deserve a foot in the door to the American dream.''

Neal said the issue is not negotiable. If farm-worker advocates reject Gramm's proposal, ``they'll be willing to throw away the potential for protection for workers under wage and hour laws.''

But Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic rights organization, said, ``A modest improvement is not sufficient over where we need to be.''

She's uncertain that lawmakers can agree.

``This is a political minefield that they are about to walk through,'' she said. ``There's a way to do this that's win-win for everybody, but getting there is tricky.''


On the Net: Center for Immigration Studies: http://www.cis.org

Farmworker Justice Fund: http://www.fwjustice.org

Legislators' Web sites: http://thomas.loc.gov

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