WASHINGTON — President Bush’s proposal Wednesday of a foreign guest-worker program was seen as both a reelection ploy to court Hispanic voters and a much-needed system to help millions of undocumented workers, including those at apparel sweatshops.

Despite acknowledging benefits under Bush’s plan, Democratic Capitol Hill lawmakers, immigrant groups and organized labor, including the apparel union UNITE, were skeptical and want reform to go further.

“We believe any type of immigration reform has to have a clear path to citizenship,” said Patricia Campos, UNITE’s Washington lobbyist. “It just can’t be a temporary worker program.”

However, Campos said, “If this new program grants new workers all the protections under U.S. law and we make that clear, then workers will be more free to stand up for their rights to unionize and improve their own working conditions.”

Bush’s plan, which has to clear Congress, would allow undocumented workers or foreigners seeking jobs in the U.S. to be employed legally if no Americans can fill the post. While employed, these workers would be protected by federal labor and wage laws, and would receive other benefits of being legitimate. However, once the job ends, these workers — who would register with the government and pay a fee — would have to leave the country.

Worker permits would be renewed after three years and there would be a limit to their employment. The limit, like many details in Bush’s plan, would be determined by Congress, where at least two GOP-sponsored immigration reform bills similar to the President’s are already in the hopper.

“We need to find a way to get [undocumented workers] out of the shadows and onto our tax roles,” Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas), a sponsor of one of the reform bills, said in a statement.

Foreigners can currently hold U.S. jobs under various visa programs that would not be changed. However, Bush is calling for an increase in the number of foreign worker permits, called green cards. The path to U.S. citizenship would remain the same, but Bush wants citizenship classes and tests to go beyond historical and government facts to include unspecified “values that make us one nation.”

This story first appeared in the January 8, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In a White House address, Bush characterized his proposal as humane and good for business, the economy and national security, but stressed his reform plan isn’t amnesty.

“We see many employers turning to the illegal labor market,” Bush said. “We see millions of hard-working men and women condemned to fear and insecurity in a massive undocumented economy.”

There are estimates of as many as 14 million undocumented workers in the U.S., of which more than half are thought to be from Mexico. Early in his administration, the President promised Mexican President Vicente Fox he would pursue a U.S. guest-worker program. Bush’s reform plans were then delayed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when immigration became a hot-button issue. The President next week meets with Fox in Mexico.

In California, where it’s estimated that one out of every five immigrants end up, most of them from Mexico, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “I am gratified that the immigration reform proposal the President announced today is moving in the direction I outlined during the campaign. I have discussed immigration reform with the President and the need to ensure that immigrants are put on a path toward fully participating and contributing to the California economy. It is important that we make sure immigrants enter the country the right way and ensure that we do so without undermining important national security concerns.

“Working with members of the California Congressional delegation and representatives from border states, I will undertake a bipartisan effort to ensure that the federal government meets its fiscal responsibility to California. As someone who came to the United States 35 years ago looking for opportunity, I understand the challenges immigrants face and I appreciate the work that the White House has done to address this important issue.”

Bill Dombrowski, president of the California Retailers Association in Sacramento, Calif., applauded the measure, pointing out that retailers in the state, though not directly benefiting from the plan, would welcome jobs filled throughout the manufacturing supply chain.

“You’re providing some protections to those individuals coming over the border, as well as those already here to fill those jobs, so I think it’s a good thing,” Dombrowski said, “especially for [California], which has a high immigrant population. I think it’s good public policy and it’s humanitarian.”

Industry observers said the proposal offers an opportunity to grow the dwindling labor pool as NAFTA and China chase people out of the business. Foreign workers make up a strong segment of the working population in the apparel sector. Hispanics and Asians dominate the ranks of production workers, at 81 percent and 16 percent, respectively, in the five-county Los Angeles area. Most production workers don’t speak English proficiently and only 17 percent are naturalized citizens, according to an industry profile from the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp.

“If you’re a legitimate manufacturer, one of your problems is getting good help and this gives you a broader base of employees,” said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association. “It takes the Wal-Mart issue off the table. You don’t have to look over your shoulder.”

Metchek was referring to the recent highly publicized raid of undocumented workers at Wal-Mart stores in 21 states, where 250 people employed by janitorial contractors were rounded up. Last fall, a federal grand jury began investigating whether the global discount retail giant violated federal immigration laws in connection with its third-party contractors.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman declined comment on details of the President’s guest-worker proposal. However, the spokeswoman said, “We don’t see where this would have a major impact on our business.”

For the last six months, swimwear manufacturer California Joy Inc. hasn’t had any luck filling 40 sewing jobs, even with ads running through the Employment Development Department and Spanish newspaper La Opinion.

“It has the potential to open avenues, since we haven’t been able to fulfill our employment needs,” said Donald Owen, vice president of the Glendale, Calif.-based firm. “We’ve had to turn away business.”

Anything that can give the struggling California apparel base an advantage is welcome, said Reza Farmehr, executive vice president at private label manufacturing firm Edmund Kim International in Rancho Dominguez, Calif.

“It puts us at an even keel with importers who rely on the vast labor market abroad,” he said. “Technology has helped us with efficiency, but it only goes so far.”

The proposal might also help bring underground businesses into compliance, Metchek said.

“It might take some steam out of the fact that illegal immigration is a driver of sweatshops,” she said. “These shops might lose their best workers who can apply for jobs in legitimate shops.”

In Washington, members of both parties have long recognized how undocumented workers are exploited, but also how they help support the U.S. economy by filling low-wage jobs. However, Democrats were wary about Bush’s proposal.

“At a time when millions of U.S. jobs are being sent overseas to cheap labor, we must be very careful not to create a program that drives down wages and then invites desperate foreign workers to take poverty-level jobs,” said Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.), senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education & the Workforce. Miller said Bush’s proposal “appears to include inadequate safeguards against employers setting wages very low, discouraging U.S. citizens and residents and opening those jobs to impoverished foreign workers.”

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.), the top Democrat on the Senate Labor committee, said in a statement: “I certainly hope the administration’s long-awaited reinvolvement in this fundamental debate is genuine and not because of [an] election-year conversion.”

Conservative Congressional Republicans, like senior House Judiciary Committee member Elton Gallegy (Calif.), have long battled granting amnesty to undocumented workers and it’s unclear how Bush’s proposal will stand with them. Gallegy and others said the U.S. should not reward illegal behavior through amnesty and Bush said his program would not do that.

However, time is running out in the 108th Congress for action on Bush’s proposal. The congressional term ends this year and lawmakers are expected to adjourn by June.

Vic Kamber, president of The Kamber Group, a lobbying firm with a large labor constituency, said action on major legislation like immigration reform would have to be completed by May, which would be a tall order.

“It will be another political football,” said Kamber, contending that Bush is maneuvering with his guest-worker plan to appeal to Hispanic voters in the November election. “He could have done this two or three years ago, but it wasn’t an election year.”