By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 24, 2003; Page A01
President Bush plans to kick off his reelection year by proposing a program that would make it easier for immigrants to work legally in the United States, in what would constitute the most significant changes to immigration law in 18 years, Republican officials said yesterday.
Lobbyists working with the White House said Bush is developing a plan that would allow immigrants to cross the border legally if jobs are waiting for them. The sources said the administration also wants to provide a way for some undocumented workers in the United States to move toward legal status.
Bush will try to make the plan more palatable to conservatives by including stricter entry controls, including increased use of technology at the border and steps toward better enforcement of current visa restrictions and reporting requirements, sources said.
Bush said at his year-end news conference last week that he was preparing to send Congress recommendations for an "immigration policy that helps match any willing employer with any willing employee." He said he is "firmly against blanket amnesty," or a mass legalization. An estimated 8 million undocumented people live in the United States. At least half of them are Mexican, authorities said.
White House aides would not provide details of the proposal, but the Republican officials said it draws on a bill introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would create a Web-based job registry, to be run by the Labor Department. Employers would post job opportunities that would be available first to U.S. workers and then to prospective immigrants, who would be allowed to come under a new visa for temporary workers.
The other half of the program would be what Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge referred to earlier this month as "some kind of legal status" for undocumented workers in this country. The sources said White House officials were more skeptical about this idea than about the temporary-worker program, but they concluded that they needed a response to the large population of undocumented workers for the plan to be credible and for Bush to get credit from Hispanic voters.
The blueprint is the most ambitious of its kind since a bill signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 that offered legal status to millions of illegal immigrants who had moved to the United States before 1982 and imposed sanctions on employers who knowingly hired illegal immigrants.