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New US plan to address work visas

world Updated: Mar 30, 2007 14:27 IST

The White House has devised a new plan to address the problem of about 12 million illegal immigrants, including some 300,000 Indians, on whom many employers in the US rely.

Worked out in closed-door meetings with Republican senators the draft plan would grant work visas to undocumented immigrants but require them to return home and pay hefty fines to become legal US residents.

Under the plan circulating on the Capitol Hill, undocumented workers could apply for three-year work visas, dubbed as Z visas. They would be renewable indefinitely but renewal would cost $3,500 each time.

The undocumented workers would have legal status with the visas, but to get a green card, making them legal permanent residents, they'd have to return to their home country, apply at a US embassy or consulate to re-enter legally and pay a $10,000 fine.

While most illegal immigrants to the US come from Mexico, the number of those from India grew the fastest in the last five years, according to official estimates.

The new White House plan also tries to make border security a priority by requiring 18,300 Border Patrol agents and 370 miles of physical fencing be in place, as well as electronic monitoring of the southern border ongoing before a temporary worker programme could start.

A scheme to make more green cards available to skilled workers by limiting visas for parents, children and siblings of US citizens and one that would prohibit temporary workers from bringing family members is one of the plan's more controversial provisions.

It is far more conservative than the one the Senate approved last year with bipartisan backing and support from President George Bush. That one allowed illegal immigrants to stay in the US, work and apply to become legal residents after learning English, paying fines and back taxes and clearing a background check.

Meanwhile, a new study by the Pew Hispanic Centre said that the rate of legal immigrants from India becoming US citizens has gone up from 56 per cent in 1995 to 65 per cent in 2005.

While the number of legal immigrants from all over the world becoming US citizens rose to a record nearly 13 million between 1995 and 2005, figures indicated that 133,000 Indians in a total eligibility pool of 248,000 were in the soon to be naturalised category in 2005.

"We've seen dramatic changes in countries across the board," said Jeffrey Passel, the centre's senior research associate. "Today's immigrants are interested in becoming US citizens," he said.

More than half of US legal immigrants are now naturalised citizens, "the highest level in a quarter century and a 15 per cent increase since 1990," when the proportion of naturalised immigrants reached historic lows.

Since 1995, the average number of yearly naturalisations has surpassed 650,000, compared with 150,000 in 1970, the study indicated.

Mexicans were by far the largest group to naturalise, at more than 1.5 million. The number represented a 144 per cent increase over 10 years, and it could have been much higher because Mexicans are the least likely of all groups to naturalise, Passel said. Another 3 million are eligible.

Immigrants from Cuba, China and the Philippines followed Mexicans as the largest groups to naturalise with most settling in four states-California, New York, Texas and Florida.

Immigrant residents with higher levels of education and better English skills are more likely to naturalise, Passel said. An additional 8.5 million legal immigrants are eligible to naturalise, but that group is made up of those who are least likely to do so. "They tend to be poorer; they tend to speak English less well and have lower levels of education," Passel said.

The increase in naturalisations can be partly attributed to the 1986 amnesty by the Reagan administration, Passel said. More than 3 million illegal immigrants became permanent residents, and many became eligible for citizenship in the early to mid-1990s after living in the country for five consecutive years.

Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Centre for Community Change, which advocates permanent residency for illegal immigrants, said the study shows "a response to immigrant bashing."

"I think we're on the cusp of seeing a national transformation," Bhargava said. "There are community organisations day in and day out that are registering people to vote, assisting people to become citizens, and I think it will pay off."