U.S. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., announced Monday that Democrats will introduce legislation to legalize the status of millions of undocumented immigrants _ a proposal that won a standing ovation from members of one of the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights groups.
The bill, which will be filed within two weeks, would grant permanent residency to illegal immigrants who have been in the United States for at least five years and who have worked here for two years, said Gephardt, the highest-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives.
To be eligible, applicants must not have broken any U.S. laws after their arrival and must pass a background check, Gephardt told the National Conference of La Raza.
"Our proposals will bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and into the light of accountability and greater cooperation in our fight against terrorism," he said. "These proposals reward hard work with fair play."
The Democratic proposal comes several months after the Bush administration placed on the back burner its consideration of a plan that would grant official residency to 3-million undocumented Mexican immigrants. Gephardt said his proposal would not be limited to Mexicans.
The plan was immediately denounced by advocates of immigration restrictions, who said it would grant preferential treatment to lawbreakers over people who follow the law and apply for a visa in their home countries.
"They play everybody who has waited in line for suckers and send a message that we simply aren't serious about enforcing our immigration laws," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "They're saying "Keep your nose clean, and you're going to get a green card.' "
Immigration advocates with La Raza, however, could not have been more pleased with the proposal, which they help devise.
"We're talking about giving someone the opportunity to earn access to a green card based on the taxes that they've paid and their work," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president of La Raza.
According to the U.S. Census, the nation has about 8.5-million undocumented immigrants. They include those who crossed the southwest border or who floated ashore without permission, and those who used legally obtained visas for a temporary visit but then stayed.
Florida is home to an estimated 450,000, giving it the fourth-highest such population in the United States, according to the INS.
Munoz said 3-million to 4-million undocumented immigrants could potentially apply for legalized status under the plan. About 60 percent to 75 percent of those would be Hispanic, while many of the rest would be Asian, she said.
Republican leaders withheld comment on the Democratic proposal as they had not yet seen it.
Gephardt also said Monday that Democrats could win additional congressional seats in Florida, helping the party's quest to recapture a congressional majority.
Republicans hold 15 of the state's 23 congressional districts. Florida was awarded two additional seats from reapportionment and Republicans hold voter registration advantages in both districts.
Despite such disadvantages, Gephardt said in an interview, "We can certainly hold what we have here and I think we've got two or three chances to pick up seats."
Gephardt said state Democrats offer strong candidates in Wayne Hogan, Carol Roberts and Harry Jacobs.
Hogan, a Jacksonville lawyer, is challenging U.S. Rep. John Mica of Winter Park in Central Florida's 7th district. Gephardt called Hogan "a fabulous candidate. We're really pleased with him."
Roberts, a Palm Beach County commissioner, is trying to upend U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale. Jacobs, a Seminole County attorney, is seeking an open seat in Central Florida against state House Speaker Tom Feeney of Oviedo.
Towson Fraser, a state Republican Party spokesman, called Gephardt's outlook "wishful thinking."
"I think his aspirations are outreaching his abilities," Fraser said. "I don't think they can pick those seats up."
_ The Associated Press contributed to this report.