WASHINGTON, Jan 7 (Reuters) - President George W. Bush's plan to open the U.S. job market to temporary immigrant workers drew fire on Wednesday from Democrats and unions who say it will create an "underclass" of laborers as long as it provides no path to permanent U.S. residency or citizenship.
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said Bush's plan would "move millions of people into a second-class status with no real promise of citizenship."
Democratic presidential contender Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut said Bush had "an election-year conversion" to immigration reform but that the plan "leaves foreign workers as fodder for our fields and factories, without giving them a path to legalization and a fair shot at the American dream."
Bush on Wednesday unveiled a plan that would allow millions of mostly Hispanic immigrants to legally work temporarily in the United States.
Democrats called it an election-year ploy to try to win support from a growing bloc of Hispanic voters.
"Unfortunately, the president's vague proposal is a self-consciously political maneuver that only offers false hope to many recent and future undocumented immigrant workers," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat.
Some lawmakers and groups who back broad immigration reform called it an important first step that will open an election-year debate on the issue.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said the plan would help the U.S. economy and provide for more effective border control.
But Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, a Texas Democrats who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said Bush's proposal was similar to a program in the 1940s that critics said allowed businesses to exploit immigrant workers.
"The president's program would create a generation of second-class citizens who are baited to work for America with the false promise of ever being able to enjoy the benefits of citizenship," he said in a statement.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said the proposal would create a permanent underclass of workers.
"The plan deepens the potential for abuse and exploitation of these workers, while undermining wages and labor protections for all workers," Sweeney said in a statement.
Rep. Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican who has been pushing broad immigration reform, said some of the critics may have a point. Any reform measure would have to allow a way for immigrant workers to earn permanent legal status if it was to work and win congressional passage, he said.
"I see no way you can pass this legislation without broad bipartisan support," Kolbe told reporters. "I think it is going to be absolutely necessary to have Democratic support for it."
A number of conservative Republican oppose granting legal status to immigrants who have entered the country illegally. They argue it is unfair to those who waited for visas and played by the rules.
Kolbe said it is unlikely Congress will pass legislation this year but that the president's proposal will open debate on the issue and lay the ground work for passing a bill next year.