Schumer Says Business-Labor Immigration Agreement Close

Business and labor leaders are close to resolving a dispute over visas for low-skilled foreign workers as lawmakers draft a broad revision of U.S. immigration laws, a Democratic senator involved in the discussions said.

“We are very close, closer than we have ever been, and we are very optimistic, but there are still a few issues remaining,” New York Senator Charles Schumer said yesterday in a statement.

The accord would clear a hurdle that has threatened to thwart the push to rewrite immigration policy that President Barack Obama has made a priority for his second term. The effort would establish a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobbying group, and the AFL-CIO, the biggest labor federation, have been at odds over wage levels in a new program to provide U.S. visas for as many as 200,000 low-skilled foreign workers each year.

Schumer told reporters earlier in the week, following a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona, that a bipartisan group of eight senators working on immigration legislation is “90 percent” done with its draft, which senators say they are aiming to unveil the week of April 8.

Discussions on the measure have continued even as Congress is in a two-week recess. Obama said March 27 that he wants an immigration bill to pass in the next several months.

Wage Agreement

As of March 28, negotiators had reached a tentative agreement on how wage rates for most industries affected by the visa program would be set, according to a congressional aide with knowledge of the negotiations who requested anonymity when discussing the private talks.

“We’re feeling very optimistic on immigration,” Jeff Hauser, an AFL-CIO spokesman, said in a statement yesterday. “Aspiring Americans will receive the road map to citizenship they deserve and ‘future flow’ will be modernized without reducing wages for any local workers, regardless of what papers they carry.”

“Ultimately the final decisions will be made by the senators involved,” Randy Johnson, senior vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber, said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.

Republican Qualms

It remains unclear whether a labor-business compromise on the visa program would gain support from all of the lawmakers working on the bill, particularly its Republican members.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, hasn’t yet signed off on the compromise labor groups and business leaders are negotiating, his spokesman, Alex Conant, said yesterday in an e-mail.

The bill in its current form would allow undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to reach full citizenship in 13 years. Republican Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona, two of the senators involved in the talks, are insisting on “triggers” to verify that the U.S. border with Mexico is secure as part of a deal.

The measure is also likely to include a better system for companies to verify the immigration status of job applicants and new rules that prioritize the family members who can immigrate to the United States legally.

Industry Exemptions

The AFL-CIO has been seeking to exempt industries with high unemployment rates such as construction from the new worker-visa program, Richard Trumka, the group’s president, said in an interview taped March 27 for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program.

While the labor federation has said it will oppose any new visa plan that would decrease wages for U.S. workers, business representatives have countered that the group is demanding wages that are higher than those paid to domestic workers performing the same jobs.

More generally, labor unions are pressing for a limited visa system that guarantees better wages for future immigrant workers, while businesses seek a broader program more responsive to their hiring needs.

Republicans want to expand the allotment of visas for immigrants with the vocational, technical or educational qualifications to meet the demand of U.S. companies for skilled workers.

In closed-door talks, labor unions and Democratic negotiators are proposing to allocate 10,000 such visas initially and cap the program at 200,000 visas, according to people close to the negotiations who asked to not be identified in describing the proposals.

That number would increase or contract through a formula that factored in U.S. economic and employment data and the recommendations of a government panel. Businesses would have to pay immigrant workers hired through the program an established wage, in some cases much higher than would otherwise be required.