The Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE — President Bush’s temporary worker program could mean more than just a chance for New Mexico’s illegal immigrants to emerge from the shadows of the state’s unofficial economy, a state Labor Department spokesman said.
The proposal could pave the way for high-skilled undocumented workers to move legally up the labor market ladder instead of remaining in low-skilled jobs, fearful of detection by authorities, spokesman Carlos Castaneda said Wednesday.
‘‘There might be a hidden pool of workers whose skills we might be able to use,’’ he said.
Bush on Wednesday unveiled his immigration reform plan for undocumented workers now in the United States and those in other countries who have been offered employment here.
Under the plan, foreign workers could apply for legal status for a three-year period if they had U.S. jobs and could travel to and from the U.S. and possibly work for additional three-year periods.
But the plan seems to contradict the Homeland Security Act, which tightens security for foriegners attemtping to enter the U.S., according to Mary Ayala, a proferssor of Spanish and assistant dean of liberal arts and sciences at Eastern New Mexico University.
“They’re finger printing and taking photos of everyone who comes in with a visa and on the other hand they’re changing the immigration status of people coming in undocumented for work and it seems it’s sending off two different contradictory messages,” Ayala said. “They’re imposing two laws at the same time that seem to point in opposite directions.”
Ayala said she is neither an advocate or critic of the plan.
Immigration advocacy groups estimate there are about 150,000 immigrants in New Mexico, about one third of whom are undocumented. State labor officials estimate there are between 30,000 and 40,000 undocumented immigrants in New Mexico.
While Castaneda said the plan could offer the state an economic injection by affording undocumented workers the right to participate officially in the economy, New Mexico immigrant advocates joined national groups in calling the program a disappointment.
‘‘The president’s proposal to create a temporary worker program falls far from providing a swift path to permanent residency and citizenship for the millions of hardworking, taxpaying immigrants and their family members who have already contributed to this country’s prosperity,’’ the Santa Fe-based immigrant rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido said in a statement Wednesday.
The organization criticized the Bush’s plan for tying the program’s temporary status to individual employers, which, organization officials said makes workers more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
‘‘What we need is comprehensive reform that includes a generous legalization component, labor rights protections, and guarantees of family unification,’’ the group said.
While details on the president’s proposal have yet to be hashed out by Congress, it would allow illegal immigrants who can show they have employment to work legally, although temporarily, in the United States can stay legally. It would not, like the temporary visa programs already in existence that involve mostly technical experts, apply only to a certain sector of the economy or industry.
Christina Rosado-Maher, the lead immigration attorney for Catholic Charities in Albuquerque, said the plan is a welcomed step in the right direction.
‘‘It gives me a lot of hope that (President Bush is) getting back on board to where he was before Sept. 11, (2001),’’ said Rosado-Maher, whose office provides immigration services to indigent immigrants.
She said her office is glad to see incentives proposed for a temporary worker program but is disappointed that the plan does not include an earned legalization component that promotes family unification.
Castaneda said the Bush proposal represents a conservative compromise to national immigration reform.
‘‘It’s certainly a giant step forward from what had existed previously, which was nothing,’’ he said. ‘‘So I think this is hopefully one of several big steps the (Bush) administration is going to take to address illegal workers. And here, in New Mexico, it will compliment some initiatives Gov. (Bill) Richardson has already started.’’
He said the proposal’s chances of survival are better given the plan stops short of providing amnesty or a direct link to the green card program, which some conservatives have argued are rewards for those who broke the law when they entered the United States.
Richardson has been a longtime advocate of immigration reform and a vocal proponent of guest worker programs. He signed a measure into law last year making it easier for undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses, allowing the state to accept an individual tax identification number instead of a Social Security number to get a license.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., stopped short of endorsing the proposal, saying it required further study, but he believes Congress can ‘‘institute a program that opens a window for immigrants to gain legal status in the United States while we continue to improve security along our borders by curtailing illegal entries.’’
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., also said Wednesday it was too early to tell what effect Bush’s proposal would have on the country’s undocumented work force.
Castaneda said the state’s labor market, which was among the top six in the country to experience positive job growth last year, would be able to absorb the undocumented work force if Bush’s plan survives.
Industries with especially strong growth last year in New Mexico included the construction and health-related areas, sectors that offer good opportunities for workers seeking low-skill positions, he said.
PNT Managing Editor Mike Linn contributed to this report.