by John Rossheim
Monster Senior Contributing Writer

Why should you care if undocumented immigrant workers are given a chance to work legally in the United States, at least for a few years?

Because under President George W. Bush's recent proposal for immigration reform, millions of landscapers, gardeners, elder-care workers, food processors and hotel room cleaners could emerge from illegal employment into the cold comfort of legitimate, near-minimum-wage jobs. And the ripple effects could quickly be felt by millions of American citizens and permanent residents who do the same jobs.

President Bush's Proposal

President Bush's plan, which leaves much for Congress to hash out, would allow the 8 million to 11 million illegal immigrant workers in the United States to get in line for permits that would enable them to work here legally for three years, with a possible extension.

These undocumented workers aren't just working at mom-and-pop restaurants and roadside motels. "Because of their increasing reliance on subcontractors, a surprising variety of businesses may be employing undocumented workers," says Amy Sugimori, a staff attorney with National Employment Law Project in New York City. Large corporations often outsource jobs to firms that sometimes employ illegal aliens.

Jobs and Security

Many observers believe that a potential influx of guest workers is no threat to American workers.

"Even though you have Americans out on the street, they're still not taking these jobs," says Laura Reiff, cochair of Essential Workers Immigration Coalition, an association of business and trade groups in Washington, DC. Americans, even if they're unemployed, "don't want to change beds or eviscerate chickens," Reiff says.

Still, "immigrants do compete against natives for jobs," says Josh Bernstein, director of federal policy for the National Immigration Law Center in Washington, DC. "But they also create jobs" by spending their earnings, he adds.

Jo Anne Adlerstein believes that although reforms in immigrant employment policy are sorely needed, the Bush proposal contains serious defects. "What's missing is a displacement requirement," says Adlerstein, senior counsel in the immigration practice group of Proskauer Rose LLP in Newark, New Jersey. "An employer is going to have to sign under oath that he has not dismissed American workers in order to hire lower-waged immigrant workers."

Wages and Working Conditions

Experts are deeply divided on how the existing legal workforce might be affected by an influx of newly legal workers more than willing to work tedious jobs at minimum wage.

"This creates a second tier of workers with few rights -- a permanent underclass," says Michele Waslin, senior immigration policy analyst with National Council of La Raza, a civil rights organization in Washington, DC.

"The workers don't necessarily have the freedom to enforce their rights to adequate pay and safe working conditions, because they depend on their employers for work and immigration status," says Sugimori. "It's going to be really tough on unions, and that will have bad effects on bargaining for wages and benefits."

On the other hand, "the current unregulated situation is harmful to American workers, not just undocumented immigrants," says Bernstein. "When you have people working next to you who are more vulnerable to intimidation by unscrupulous employers, you have a hard time asserting your own rights in the workplace."

Will the Proposal Become Law?

For now, President Bush's proposal is just a vague set of ideas, with the nitty-gritty of immigration law left to a deeply and closely divided Congress. The ultimate form and fate of the initiative is very uncertain.

"The chances of it passing in this election year are better than 50-50," says Reiff, who is also a shareholder in Greenberg Traurig LLP specializing in business immigration law.

Those who oppose the guest-worker proposal are fairly confident it won't get through Congress. "I want to be optimistic and say that's a very low chance," says Waslin.