The last time Congress took up immigration reform, in 2007, the effort collapsed in part because the nation’s largest labor union and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were at odds over granting foreign workers visas to fill low-skilled jobs. The chamber wanted to throw open the doors for guest workers to help businesses meet demand but insisted the workers be sent home when their visas expired. Unions wanted to keep the number of visas low to prevent foreigners from displacing U.S. workers. Leaders on both sides were “going around in Congress trying to stab the other side in the back,” says Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan immigration think tank.
So Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka stunned observers of the issue when they sent out a “Joint Statement of Shared Principles” on Feb. 21, declaring they’d overcome many of their differences. “We have found common ground in several important areas, and have committed to continue to work together and with Members of Congress to enact legislation that will solve our current problems in a lasting manner,” they wrote.
With the White House and Congress likely to take up major immigration reform legislation this year, advocates for labor and business realize they risk being left behind if they can’t get past their old grievances. The labor movement has come to see foreign workers as potential recruits to boost its dwindling ranks—at 14.4 million, national union membership is the lowest since the government began counting in 1983. Legal foreign labor is preferable to undocumented workers who undercut union wages. The chamber now says it will support green cards for some foreign workers if it means businesses will be able to hire more freely from abroad without running into government restrictions.
In the weeks after the election, President Obama made immigration a priority. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who’ve worked together for years trying to win support for an immigration bill, called Donohue and Trumka to the Capitol. They urged the two men to work out a compromise. “They asked us to start talking, and we did,” says Ana Avendaño, Trumka’s top immigration adviser. The chamber declined to comment.
The AFL-CIO and the business community say they want U.S. workers to get a “first crack” at available low-wage jobs, as the statement puts it. Under the current guest-worker program, employers who want a shot at one of the 66,000 yearly visas for low-skilled foreigners must show the federal government that they first made a good-faith effort to find capable U.S. applicants. A decades-old U.S. Department of Labor rule requires them to place two ads in local newspapers. But they don’t have to post positions online, even though many job seekers now look there. The chamber has agreed to do more to help companies promote openings to U.S. workers, though the statement doesn’t spell out details.
Both sides are calling on the government to create a new immigration category for guest workers. Those who enter the country on “Dual Intent” visas would be allowed to switch jobs more easily—their immigration status wouldn’t be tied to the employer who brought them to the U.S.—and some would be eligible to apply for green cards. They also want to peg the number of visas the government makes available to the needs of the market.
The agreement between the chamber and the unions doesn’t suggest how Washington would make these things happen. Conflicts over details could again bog down an immigration bill, which the Senate is expected to take up by summer. Yet the sight of two ancient rivals holding hands shows self-interest might trump stubbornness, says Papademetriou. Neither side “is powerful enough to make an end run around the other.”