Original URL: http://www.azstarnet.com/star/Sat/30726guestworkerbill.html

Proposal welcomes migrant workers
3 Ariz. Republicans offer bill in Senate and House
July 26, 2003
By Michael Marizco

Federal legislation that would grant migrants the same rights as American workers and give them a chance to live here legally no matter how they came was introduced Friday by three Arizona Republicans.

Under the proposal, there would be no limit to the number of work visas issued, but people with misdemeanors or felonies on their records for breaking laws other than illegal entry or false identification could not apply.

Although he expects widespread opposition, Sen. John McCain said he introduced the Land Border Security and Immigration Improvement Act because of his own growing concerns about terrorism since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, while border crossers continue to die in the deserts of Southern Arizona.

"We'd been working on this for months, but the issue is getting worse. There's more people dying in the desert," McCain said. In Southern Arizona, 107 illegal entrants have been found dead so far this year.

If migrants from other countries had worker status, law enforcement agencies such as the Border Patrol could devote their time to dangerous criminals and potential terrorists crossing into the country, he said.

If it passes congressional scrutiny, the legislation would give migrants temporary worker visas allowing them to work in this country for three-year terms. After three years, holders of these H-4A visas could apply to become permanent American residents.

It also would allow illegal crossers into the United States to become legal residents after six years.

Illegal entrants already working in the country would be relegated to the back of the line with an H-4B visa, said Rep. Jim Kolbe, who introduced the legislation in the House Friday with fellow Republican Rep. Jeff Flake.

Anyone working in the country before Aug. 1, 2003, no matter how they came, could apply for the visa.

"It is not an amnesty, and I think that is an important point to keep in mind," Kolbe said. "This gives them status to stay, but they go to the end of the line."

How many people are living in the United States illegally is not known, but the U.S. Census Bureau has estimated the number at about 9 million.

The bill would grant the same labor legal protections to migrants as Americans, and migrants could take the visa from job to job, Kolbe said.

Employers would be required to post their job openings to American citizens for two weeks. If none applied or qualified for a job, it would be made available to migrants with the worker visa.

Visa holders would be able to bring only their own children across, and then only if both parents carried visas. Migrants with the H-4B would be able to apply for their families to come, but would have to wait until they reached H-4A status. They could, however, go visit their families.

The Arizona Republicans in Congress are under no illusions: They expect they're picking a fight with Democrats and even with their own party.

McCain said most of the opposition he meets will be in Washington. "We expect widespread opposition, but most of the people that I know in Arizona are deeply concerned about this issue," he said.

The last immigration reform Kolbe tried to pass was a bill to create a commission to look at this temporary worker visa program, but nothing came of it, said Kolbe's press secretary, Neena Moorjani.

The new bill is based on the reality that people are already crossing illegally into the United States mainly to find work, Kolbe said.

Illegal border crossers would stay at an H-4B visa status for three years, and to get that, they would have to pay a $1,500 fee.

Kolbe told reporters who asked Friday whether the legislation would increase the number of people crossing into the United States: "The borders are open now, people are coming in now."

The visa would include photo identification cards, giving American border agencies a legitimate enforcement tool.

"You don't have that now," Kolbe said.

U.S. Rep. Raśl Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat, had not seen the final draft of the bill but protested a provision that would block anyone with a misdemeanor conviction from applying for either visa. Destroying someone's chances at a better life for a misdemeanor is something the bill's proponents should reconsider, he said.

He also said any employer database that is not carefully regulated would create a new type of smuggler, one who transports people to jobs instead of across the border.

"I just think that it's ripe for abuse. I don't want today's coyotes to become tomorrow's job brokers," Grijalva said.

As he sees it, the bill allows for little in the way of worker protection.

* Contact reporter Michael Marizco at 573-4213 or mmarizco@azstarnet.com.