Senators negotiating a bipartisan accord on U.S. immigration policy expressed optimism yesterday that a plan will be ready for Senate consideration soon, while differences remain with Republicans leading the House.
A deal reached over the weekend by business and labor leaders on allocating visas to low-skilled foreign workers improves the chances for a bill. Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat and member of the eight-person negotiating team, said he expected the bill to reach the Judiciary Committee in April and the full Senate in May.
“Every major policy issue has been resolved,” Schumer said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “I am very, very optimistic that we will have an agreement among the eight of us next week.”
Still, Schumer, along with Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said there was no final agreement among the lawmakers because details of legislation haven’t been finished. The Senate is on recess this week and returns to Washington April 8.
“We’re much closer with labor and business agreeing on this guest-worker plan,” Flake said on NBC. “That doesn’t mean we’ve crossed every ’I’ or dotted every ’T’ or vice-versa.”
The agreement between labor and business groups is designed to resolve a long-simmering dispute over a proposed guest-worker program that had been impeding Senate efforts to spearhead the broadest changes in immigration law in almost 30 years. The heads of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobbying group, and the AFL-CIO, the biggest labor federation, reached the accord late on March 29.
Democrats, who control the Senate, will have difficulty garnering the 60 votes needed for passage in that chamber, and the Republican-controlled House poses an even greater challenge.
President George W. Bush, a Republican, tried unsuccessfully from 2005 to 2007 to get immigration legislation through Congress. President Barack Obama’s push for a smaller- scale immigration law in 2010 similarly failed.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican member of the Senate group, said in a statement yesterday that, while he was “encouraged” by the labor-business agreement, it would be “premature” to assume that the Senate group had reached a final decision. Any legislation the Senate group endorses “will only be a starting point,” he said.
“In order to succeed, this process cannot be rushed or done in secret,” Rubio said.
The effort’s centerpiece would establish a 13-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., which Democrat Obama has made a priority for his second term. House Republicans may be more open to a path toward legal residency for the undocumented, rather than citizenship.
Republican opposition to providing a citizenship path, a major stumbling block in past efforts, has lessened since the November election, in which Obama won 71 percent of Hispanic votes cast. Republican leaders have said the party needs to do more to court the fast-growing voter bloc.
“They will have a path to citizenship but it will be earned, it will be long, it will be hard,” Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue and Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, reached a verbal agreement during a conference call with Schumer, according to a person familiar with the discussion, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a private call. Schumer called White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to alert him to the deal, the person said.
The agreement would establish a federal bureau called the Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research and a visa program called the W Visa Program, according to the AFL-CIO. The bureau would use labor market and demographic information to identify labor shortages and to help set an annual visa cap. It would be funded through registered employer fees.
Employers seeking workers in lesser-skilled fields including hospitality, janitorial services, retail and construction could apply through the new visa program, which also would allow workers to petition for permanent status after working for one year.
The program would start with 20,000 visas in the first year, 35,000 in the second, 55,000 in the third and 75,000 in the fourth. In year five the number would grow or shrink based on a formula that takes into account the unemployment rate, the number of job openings and other factors.
The number of visas awarded annually could never exceed 200,000, and one-third of all visas would go only to businesses with under 25 employees, according to the AFL-CIO. Construction visas would be capped at 15,000 per year, addressing Trumka’s concern about a potentially adverse impact on that industry.
The visas are only for non-seasonal, non-agricultural jobs. Farm workers are covered under an existing H-2A program, which provides for temporary labor to complete seasonal tasks, mainly harvests.
The Senate proposal borrows language from a current law requiring employers to offer visa holders wages and working conditions that wouldn’t adversely affect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers. That means wages must be equal to the actual level paid by the employer to other workers with similar experience or the prevailing wage for the job at issue, whichever is greater.
The measure will probably include a better system for companies to verify the immigration status of job applicants and new rules that would prioritize the family members who can immigrate to the U.S. legally.