MIAMI – House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt announced a new initiative that would grant legal status to millions of undocumented workers in the United States. Gephardt made the announcement before a crowd of 3,000 people attending the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) being held here.

Gephardt said that the bill, which would be introduced “in the next few weeks,” would recognize “the hard work of immigrants” by offering them the opportunity to legalize their status in the United States. The proposal would grant legal residency to undocumented immigrants have been in the country for five years and have worked for two years.

The House Democratic leader criticized the Bush administration, saying the president “talks about immigration reform, but there has not been a lot of action.” He said that he hoped the Republicans “not make political hay” by using the so-called war on terrorism to oppose the proposal. Gephardt said the bill would help national security by “bringing undocumented immigrants out of the shadows.” The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund issued a statement urging Republicans to support the proposal.

Gephardt said that the proposed bill would apply to all undocumented immigrants and not just to one nationality. The Bush administration has discussed proposals for amnesty and guest-worker status for Mexicans with the president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, but the talks have led nowhere.

The proposal, Gephardt said, had been discussed with the “Hispanic Caucus, labor unions and other organizations.” Many delegates at the NCLR conference said that they would have to see the details before committing themselves to support the proposed bill, but nevertheless were happy that there was something new on the table.

There are an estimated 8.7 million undocumented immigrant workers in the U.S. Cecilia Muñoz, a vice-president of the NCLR, said that she estimates that up to four million immigrants would be eligible for amnesty if Gephardt’s proposal becomes law.

Gephardt also criticized the Bush administration’s proposal to “attempt to deputize local police to enforce federal laws” as dangerous and a threat to civil liberties.

The Missouri Congressman also brought up the issue of prescription drugs for elderly. He personalized the issue by speaking of his mother’s drug bill, saying that it comes to $700 a month. “She’s lucky. She has my brother and me to make up for what Medicare does not pay.” He called for a Medicare prescription benefit “not written by the pharmaceutical” industry.

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