President Bush's immigration reform proposal was slammed Wednesday as inadequate by immigrant-rights advocates and as an abdication of the nation's borders by those pushing tougher enforcement.
But Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., defended the plan unveiled Wednesday by the president as a reasonable balance that protects the nation's borders while creating a mechanism for immigrant workers to fill jobs Americans won't take.
Last July, Flake joined Sen. John McCain and Rep. Jim Kolbe, both Arizona Republicans, in advocating legislation that is nearly identical to what the president proposed. The major difference is that the proposal from the Arizona lawmakers created a more defined path for immigrant workers to obtain citizenship than the president's plan, Flake said.
“This isn't throwing up our hands at all,” Flake said. “It's recognizing that we need the labor. It's been coming. This would create a legal avenue for them to go into so we can start enforcing the laws.”
McCain did not respond to a request for an interview.
The president's proposal, like the plan advanced by the Arizona congressmen, would allow illegal immigrants to apply for temporary work permits, which could be renewed. The workers would have to prove they have a job, and would have to leave the country when their permits expire. Immigrant workers already in the United States illegally would have to pay a registration fee and show they are employed. Before an employer could hire an immigrant worker, it would have to be demonstrated that no Americans would take the jobs.
Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., said the president's plan amounts to de facto amnesty for illegal immigrants, something that has not stemmed their flow into this country in the past.
“Realistically, it says to illegals ‘y'all come,’ ” Hayworth said.
Existing laws aimed at securing the borders and preventing employers from hiring illegal workers need to be better enforced before guest worker programs are expanded, Hayworth said.
On East Valley street corners, day laborers met Bush's proposed immigration reforms with a mixture of skepticism and hope.
"A lot of people don't agree with what Bush says," said Lauro Torres, 66, who was among about 12 other people at Chandler's day labor center at 501 S. Arizona Ave. Torres questioned how long the "guest workers" would be allowed to stay in the United states, adding that some he's known have been working here 15 years or more.
Omar Huerta, a 32-year-old house painter, was waiting for work with three other men across the street from the Chandler center. He said he welcomed Bush's statements because it would legalize the undocumented workers currently here in Arizona.
"It's good for us, good for immigrants," he said.
Day laborers on the northwest corner of Mesa Drive and Broadway Road likened Bush's ideas to political opportunism.
Carlos Gonzalez, 27, who has a wife and two kids in Sonora, Mexico, said such a program would take away the hassle and danger of crossing illegally. "It would be easier to return (to jobs in the United States)," he said, recalling that it took him four days to cross the border the last time he returned about a year ago.
Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, D-District 5 of Phoenix, said during a news conference of several Hispanic groups that any immigration reform law needs a means for immigrants who have long worked in the United States, and who are cleared in background checks, to become citizens. The president's plan also lacks specific provisions to ensure immigrant workers are not exploited and that they are paid fair wages, Wilcox said.
“My first blush is that this is pandering to companies, agricultural and service industries, and not really looking at the millions of undocumented workers who are in this country and adding to the economy,” Wilcox said.
Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., said the major shortfall in the president's proposal is it does not address the issue of securing the borders. Shadegg said he supports the concept of a guest worker program, but only if the borders are secured and other immigration laws are enforced.
Supporters of Protect Arizona Now, an initiative on the November ballot that would tighten Arizona’s voter registration and welfare eligibility laws, also said Bush was skirting the federal government's real responsibility.
"He seems to be unwilling to secure our border and protect Americans from future tides of illegal immigration," said Rusty Childress, treasurer for the initiative drive.