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On Jan. 7, President George W. Bush made a bold statement of his vision for immigration reform. A key component of the reform agenda is a temporary worker plan for the estimated 8 million undocumented aliens in this country, according to the latest U.S. census data. If adopted, the plan will impact lawyers whose practices usually are only tangentially affected by immigration policy. Legal practitioners, scholars, politicians and the public -� which deals with backlogs at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services �- generally agree that the U.S. system of immigration law is cumbersome at best and, at worst, so fundamentally flawed as to pose a danger to society. The multifaceted and conflicting interests of border enforcement, domestic security, immigration benefits, U.S. worker protections, employers needing skilled and manual labor, and our history of personal liberties have resulted in the confusing patchwork of immigration laws. The president’s immigration reform provides an opportunity to bring order to the chaos. Here are the basics of the Bush immigration proposal, which the president sketched out in his Jan. 7 speech at the White House. The president said he opposes “amnesty, placing undocumented workers on the automatic path to citizenship.” Instead, he proposes a temporary worker program that allows undocumented workers in the United States to apply for lawful status and employment authorization. A White House fact sheet outlines the program’s key principles: increased border security; matching willing employers with willing workers; worker protection from exploitation; and incentives to return to the home country. In general, a U.S. employer who makes reasonable efforts to find an American for an open job could fill the position with a temporary worker if the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) approves. CIS would grant the employee work authorization for three years, renewable for an additional three years, plus permission to travel to his or her home country and return to the United States. The president envisions incentives to assure a return to the home country after the expiration of the lawful status. If the Bush immigration reform works as planned, the number of temporary workers suddenly in lawful status will affect many aspects of society, such as politics, banking, insurance, home ownership, health and safety, bilingual education, travel and hospitality, transportation, small businesses and even sports. Those far-reaching effects, in turn, mean the Bush proposal will affect many areas of the law in addition to immigration. Advocates for expanded immigration and those seeking to limit immigration responded immediately to news of the temporary worker plan. Advocates argue that the reform does not address the real needs of the workers, their families or the U.S. employers that rely on their hard work and skill. Restrictionists claim that legitimizing the status of illegal aliens takes jobs from U.S. workers, encourages illegal immigration and threatens our national security. The impact on lawyers also is a topic for debate. Some immigration practitioners say the president’s proposal will result in more immigration cases than the 1986 amnesty program. Others believe relatively few immigrants will actually apply for the program because it offers no permanent residence track and would require even workers with family ties in the United States ultimately to return home. Even using a conservative estimate �- assuming only a small percentage of the undocumented workforce seeks temporary worker status �- several million workers could apply. Affected Areas While proponents and opponents focus on the effect of the proposal on immigration law, the plan potentially could impact lawyers in many other practice areas. Many undocumented workers do not use the U.S. legal system for dispute resolution or apply for governmental benefits, even if they qualify for them. Many fear the court system because they lack legal immigration status. Others may feel intimidated, manipulated or coerced by an opposing party and believe they have no recourse. Here are some practice areas that will be affected significantly. * Labor and employment law. Employers favor a large work pool, so they generally will support the temporary worker program. On the employee side, the positions temporary workers are likely to fill are traditionally represented by labor unions and other collective bargaining organizations. An influx of 8 million workers newly emboldened by their legal status to seek worker and wage protections could greatly increase the power of unions. Many labor and employment cases will be affected simply because back pay is generally barred under current laws for illegal aliens who would benefit from a legalized status. * Workers’ compensation. Many workers do not avail themselves of workers’ compensation laws because filing a claim requires a Social Security number. Workers granted legal status who can obtain a Social Security number may be more likely to file claims and appeals on contested claims. * Social Security law. Social Security and disability insurance benefits will be available that are currently inaccessible because of nonmatching Social Security numbers. An increase in the number of claims for Social Security disability benefits based on qualifying credits and supplemental security income is likely. * Family law. Family members considering divorce and/or seeking custody, child support or guardianship sometimes use the illegal status of another family member against him or her. Legal status will allow those who need protection to seek it from the family court system. More workers also mean more families, which means more family-law cases. * Transactional business. The multitude of sole proprietorships and other small businesses that do business on a handshake and under the table will be able to register under state and local business laws, incorporate or otherwise use our civil court system for dispute resolution. The sudden legalization of a vast underground economy will affect millions of undocumented workers and employers. Immigration lawyers will feel the primary impact of the president’s proposal, but the plan will affect attorneys in many other practice areas. No one knows what legislation Congress will draft in response to the Bush proposal, but one thing is sure: The impact on millions of workers and the attorneys that represent them, their families and their employers will be significant. William D. Fong is the managing partner of Houston’s Fong & Associates. He is board certified in immigration and nationality law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and teaches immigration law as an adjunct professor at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in Houston.

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