President Bush announced today a major overhaul of immigration policy that will offer a reprieve to an estimated 8 million illegal workers facing the threat of deportation.

Under a plan he will propose to Congress, illegal aliens working in the United States would be allowed to remain in the country for three years if their employers vouch for their jobs. During that period, the worker essentially would be given the rights of a worker with permanent-resident status, including Social Security benefits and the right to bring family members to the United States.

In addition, a “temporary worker program” would permit foreigners to come to the U.S. if they can prove they have secured a job.

The plan, Bush said, “will offer legal status as temporary workers to the millions of undocumented men and women now employed in the United States and to those in foreign countries who seek to participate in the program and have been offered employment here.”

Bush said his plan was one of “compassion,” saying those who want to work in the U.S. should not have to be subjected to the dangers of sneaking into America.

“Many undocumented workers have walked mile after mile through the heat of the day and the cold of the night. Some have risked their lives” to get into the country, he said.

“Workers who seek only to earn a living end up in the shadows of American life … often abused and exploited.”

Eliciting a hearty round of applause from officials gathered in the White House East Room, Bush said, “Our laws should allow willing workers to enter our country and fill jobs Americans are not filling.”

Even as he announced the new plan, Bush said, “America must control its borders,” hailing the new technological techniques now being used by federal agents to track entrants and prevent terrorists from entering.

He said the U.S. should not give “unfair rewards to illegal immigrants in the citizenship process or disadvantage those who came here lawfully or hope to do so.”

The White House insists the program is not a “blanket amnesty,” but opponents in Congress argue the president is rewarding lawbreakers and opening the door to more illegal immigration.

The plan seeks to address those concerns by offering the workers incentives to return home when their visas expires. One idea is to allow them to collect Social Security benefits if they return home.

However, critic Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, calls the program a “two-step amnesty.”

“It’s not what the folks on the left want, which is a quick green card, but it is an amnesty nonetheless,” he said. “It legalizes illegal immigrants and is going to increase the number of green cards so that people will be able to move through the system faster.”

The proposal would increase the total number of green cards, but a figure has not been determined. About 1 million green cards are issued each year, but only about 140,000 are employment-based.

The plan does not specify how illegal immigrants would apply for green cards, or permanent U.S. residency, but administration officials said workers accepted into the temporary program could apply immediately if they have an employer’s sponsorship.

Currently an illegal worker who applies is immediately deported.

Under the plan, workers who are not granted permanent residency before their time expires would be forced to return home and apply from there.

The president’s proposal comes ahead of a meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox next week at the Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, and during an election year in which Republicans are courting Hispanic voters. But some immigration-rights advocates complain the plan does not go far enough.

“Extremely disappointing,” said Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, according to Fox News. “They’re proposing to invite people to be guest workers without providing any meaningful opportunity to remain in the United States to become legal permanent residents.”

Author Jon Dougherty, in a new release by WND Books, notes a recent change in mindset toward immigration among elements of the political establishment and among the U.S. population.

“In years past, gaining access to America so one could share in its promise was treated as a privilege, not a right to be granted automatically just because you could make it over the border,” Dougherty writes in “Illegals: The Imminent Threat Posed by Our Unsecured U.S.-Mexico Border.”

“Today, however,” he says, “the process of immigration – indeed, the requirement our immigrants assimilate into our society – has changed dramatically.”

Read full text of Bush’s speech.

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