The nation's immigration laws need to be reformed to give illegal immigrants and their children better educational opportunities and a path to citizenship, Democratic presidential contender John Kerry said Tuesday in Phoenix.
Kerry, speaking to about 5,000 people during the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, said he would push a major immigration reform package within his first 100 days in office if elected.
It would include new laws to allow those who have lived illegally in the United States for five years, but otherwise have obeyed the law and paid their taxes, to gain legal status and work toward citizenship, he said.
Kerry's speech in the Valley came as a new poll shows him lagging behind Republican President Bush in Arizona. The statewide poll done for KAET-TV (Channel 8) by pollster Bruce Merrill shows that Bush now leads Kerry 47 percent to 35 percent, with independent Ralph Nader picking up 2 percent. The poll had a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.
In May, Bush was favored over Kerry 48-41, which was a statistical tie because the difference fell within the poll's margin of error.
On Tuesday, Kerry backed bipartisan legislation that has languished in Congress to allow certain children of illegal immigrants to attend colleges and universities in the United States while paying in-state tuition, and protect the rights of farmworkers.
“It will ensure that good people who are undocumented but living here, working here, paying taxes, who stay out of trouble, have a path to citizenship,” Kerry said of the series of immigration reforms he said he would push.
“It will extend English and civics classes to these people so they can assume the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. We will make sure that families are reunited more quickly. As we do all of this, we will improve our border security, fix our watch lists and enforce the law as it ought to be enforced.”
Hispanics are expected to make up a large voting block in Arizona and they are being courted by Kerry and Bush. The president did not attend the La Raza conference. Kerry was its featured speaker. Current immigration laws force waves of immigrants who do not get legal work status to put their lives at risk crossing the desert as they struggle to make a better life for their families, Kerry said. What is needed is a more sensible work visa system to allow temporary workers to come into the United States. Once they are here, they need to be afforded legal protection under federal labor laws, including fair wage protections, according to Kerry's plan.
Bush has proposed a guest worker program with similar components for gaining legal work status, but it does not include a path to citizenship.
Among Kerry's best-received lines of the speech, which ran more than an hour, was his pledge to support what is dubbed the DREAM Act proposed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. The proposal, which has bipartisan support in Congress, would allow the children of illegal immigrants who came to the United States before they were 16 years old to gain legal status while they are attending college or serving in the military. It also would remove federal restrictions that currently prevent states from charging in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, leaving that decision to the states.
Any legal immigrant who serves in the U.S. military should be put on an expedited track toward citizenship, Kerry said.
Bush received about 38 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2000 election, according to Rosario Marin, former U.S. treasurer and now the Hispanic co-chairwoman of Bush's re-election committee. Since Bush took office, the percentage of minority homeowners has reached its highest level ever, Marin said. The greatest percentage of new business owners since Bush became president is among Hispanics, she said.
“The record of the president is very clear as to how he has benefited the Latino community — as opposed to his counterpart (Kerry), who for 19 years has been there and all of a sudden he discovers there are Latinos in the United States,” Marin said.