U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo said President George W. Bush was pursuing "cheap labor and political points" with his plan to offer legal guest worker status to millions of illegal immigrants.
Tancredo is right. But that doesn't mean Bush's proposal is wrong.
No one should be shocked by Bush's timing. This is an election year and no doubt the president is hoping to shore up his standing among Hispanics. And there also is no doubt that one of the primary beneficiaries of the Bush proposal is big business, which would suddenly be able to draw from a large pool of cheap labor.
But even if Bush's proposal is politically expedient, the president deserves credit for offering the most significant step toward immigration reform in decades.
Bush's plan would create a program allowing immigrants to work in mostly low-skilled, low-wage jobs for up to three years. An estimated 8 million immigrants in the country illegally would have the opportunity to get legal status by joining the program.
The benefits of the proposal are clear. First, millions of illegal immigrants already filling jobs in this country suddenly would have access to basic services such as drivers' licenses, health insurance and the same workplace protections as their co-workers. They could change jobs and bring their families with them to the United States. They could contact police to report crimes without fear of being deported. Quite simply, they would have access to healthier, more humane lifestyles.
Businesses, particularly those in the service and agriculture sectors, would have a more stable pool of legal workers from which to recruit. The government already estimates that 52 percent of all workers in the agriculture industry are illegal immigrants. The reason? Most Americans are unwilling to work the largely low-paying, labor intensive jobs in the agriculture industry. Why not give those eager to work those jobs the opportunity to do so legally?
The proposal could ease tensions at the borders. Every year, hundreds of illegal immigrants die trying to sneak into the United States via the harsh deserts of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Such deaths would no doubt be reduced by a program giving immigrants the means to enter the country legally.
The proposal is not without shortcomings. Foremost, the guest worker program would last only three years. Many immigrants might choose to maintain illegal status instead of building a life in the United States only to be forced to give it up and leave after three years. Critics say Bush's proposal actually would make it harder for immigrants to gain permanent residency.
Bush's plan is a long way from becoming law. There will be significant debate in Congress over his proposal, and the end result -- if there is one --likely will look different from what is being proposed.
But give the president credit for putting forth a thoughtful idea, an idea that is far better than simply trying to build more walls between us and our neighbors to the south. Bush has ignited the debate. Now, let it begin in earnest.