Owens touts guest-worker plan

WASHINGTON – Gov. Bill Owens waded into the national immigration debate on Wednesday, pitching a proposed guest-worker plan on Capitol Hill amid an ongoing congressional debate over U.S. border policy.

The U.S. House started to tackle the enforcement side of the immigration equation this week and was preparing to debate legislation to toughen laws targeting illegal immigrants and the people who employ them.

For now, the House is putting off a debate on any guest-worker plan, which President Bush has said is essential for any comprehensive immigration reform.

At a forum Wednesday sponsored by the advocacy group Freedom Works, Owens touted a version of a guest-worker plan that would “outsource” part of the visa process to privately run employment agencies.

The proposal, developed by the Vernon K. Kriebel Foundation, is meant as an incentive to encourage millions of illegal immigrants to return to their home countries. Once there, they could register with employment agencies certified by the U.S. government, undergo criminal and terrorism-related background checks, and then be eligible for guest-worker visas for jobs where no American workers are available.

“If we legalized guest workers, you’d, in fact, meet the needs of America’s public and private sectors. These people would pay taxes, and we’d be able to identify them,” Owens said.

The issue has caused fractures within Owens’ Republican Party, as some hard-line reformers like Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., call for an total crackdown on illegal immigration, but some business leaders worry about what that might mean to the labor supply.

Tancredo, who has equated other guest-worker plans to “amnesty” for people who entered the country illegally, has big questions about Owens’ plan, spokesman Will Adams said Wednesday. “What incentive is there in his plan for illegals to voluntarily give up their jobs and leave the country?” Adams asked.

“His plan, in practice, will do one of two things: It will either guarantee a guest-worker pass to all 13 million illegals who are currently in the U.S . . . or it opens up our borders to every immigrant worker who wants to get in, which is not a serious, sustainable policy.”