WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - President Bush's immigration reform proposal would allow millions of illegal immigrants to apply for temporary work permits, but they would receive "no special advantage" in obtaining green cards that confer permanent U.S. residence, administration officials said yesterday.
In a preview of Bush's planned announcement today, officials conceded that many key details remain to be worked out with Congress and said the president would set no timetable for legislative action.
The lack of specifics seemed certain to draw criticism from Democrats and immigrant advocates that Bush is more interested in making a political play for the Hispanic vote during an election year than in changing policy.
Proponents of restrictions on immigration already have denounced the president's program as an amnesty.
"I certainly hope the administration's long-awaited re-involvement in this fundamental debate is genuine and not because of an election-year conversion," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and a leading proponent of immigration reform.
Bush is committed to immigration reform, the administration officials said, but he sees his role as setting out principles, not prescribing details.
Although the Bush plan would confer many benefits on illegal immigrants, officials insisted that it is not an amnesty because it would not entitle them to remain in the United States indefinitely.
"The green card is permanent residency status. We are talking about a temporary worker program," said one official. "Therein lies the basic difference.
"We are talking about someone who can be here on a temporary status and ultimately find themselves back in their home country after working in the United States."
However, the officials also said temporary workers would enjoy the protection of U.S. laws - including the opportunity to apply for green cards, minimum wage and workplace safety rules, retirement plans and even the right to open tax-deferred savings accounts.
"These people will be on the books, as opposed to an underground economy," said a second official.
"They will be able to own property and they will pay taxes. They will enjoy minimum wage and health and safety requirements."
The officials briefed reporters on condition that they not be identified.
The temporary-worker program would have no limitation on the number of immigrant workers who could participate.
The program would be open to undocumented workers already here as well as those who want to come to the United States.
Agriculture, the hospitality industry and construction are expected to be the main employers.
To participate in the program, undocumented workers already in the United States would have to pay a "registration fee," to be set in consultation with Congress, and show they are currently employed.
Workers who want to come to the United States will need to prove that they have a job awaiting them. The initial temporary work visa would be for three years and could be renewed.
Once accepted as temporary workers, illegal immigrants could apply for green cards. The administration said it would ask Congress for a "reasonable" increase in the number of green cards available through employment-related programs.
Currently, employer-sponsored permanent immigrants are limited to 140,000 a year.
But the temporary workers would have no guarantee that they could become permanent residents or, eventually, U.S. citizens.
Overall, the president's program seems tailored to the needs of business groups that have been pressing the administration for a change in immigration policy.
But since congressional Republicans are divided over immigration reform, a sizable number of Democrats would be needed to pass any legislation. That means Bush would probably have to accept more generous measures sought by Hispanic organizations and immigrant advocates.
A coalition of such groups issued their own set of principles yesterday, including "a path to citizenship for those who want to embrace the American dream."
"There has to be a path to citizenship or we run the risk of doing what the Germans have done to Turkish immigrants - letting them stay for generations but not accepting them as full members of society," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.
Kennedy also called on the White House to actively support two bills before Congress that address part of the immigration issue.
One would provide temporary agricultural workers while allowing those here without authorization to obtain legal status. The other would allow illegal immigrant children, reared and schooled in the United States, to attend state colleges at in-state tuition rates.
Asked about the legislation during the briefing, administration officials stopped short of offering an endorsement.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.