Unions, Business Reach Accord on Guest-Worker Visa Needs

Labor leaders and the nation’s largest business lobby called for a new visa program to let U.S. companies hire foreign workers for jobs Americans aren’t available to fill, signaling progress on a critical component of immigration law revisions being debated in Washington.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, representing the nation’s biggest organized labor federation, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue also said today that the government should create a research bureau to crunch employment and other data to help identify future U.S. labor shortages and ways to address them.

While their “joint statement of shared principles” fell far short of a compromise on one of the thorniest issues in the immigration debate, it is a public signal that business and labor -- long at war over a so-called “guest-worker program” - - are moving toward common ground.

“We are now in the middle -- not the end -- of this process, and we pledge to continue to work together and with our allies and our representatives on Capitol Hill to finalize a solution that is in the interest of this country,” Trumka and Donohue said in their joint statement.

Hispanic Clout

The 2012 elections spotlighted the growing political influence of Hispanic voters, 71 percent support of them backed President Barack Obama and helped him win a second term. Since then, the White House has pressed for a measure to legalize the 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the U.S. A bipartisan group of senators is also working to craft such a measure, aiming to unveil it next month.

White House press secretary Jay Carney welcomed the labor-business statement when asked about it today.

“This is yet another sign of progress” and “we are encouraged by it,” Carney told reporters. At the same time, he said, “we remain focused on encouraging the Senate to develop a comprehensive bill.”

Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat who is one of the eight-member group working on immigration legislation, called the agreement “a major step forward.”

“While the devil will be in the details in terms of fleshing these principles out, our staffs have had very productive discussions with both sides this week,” Schumer said in a statement.

Sticking Point

The long-running dispute over how the bill should address temporary entry for low-skilled foreign workers -- including janitors, home health care aides and carnival workers -- still threatens to emerge as a sticking point.

The issue helped defeat a similar immigration effort in 2007, when Obama, then a senator, voted to gut a proposed guest-worker program and the AFL-CIO opposed the broader bill.

Obama opted against including such a program in his own blueprint for an immigration rewrite rolled out last month, and a legislative draft of his administration’s plan first obtained Feb. 16 by USA Today omits it as well.

Labor leaders have said a new low-skilled visa program could undermine protections and drive down wages for U.S. and immigrant workers alike, while employers argue they need one to fill vacancies for jobs Americans are unwilling or unavailable to perform.

Government Commission

The two sides remain divided over how to structure such a program. Organized labor wants to put a government commission in charge of looking at employment and other data and recommending whether to issue additional visas, and how many.

Businesses are opposed to leaving the decision in the hands of such a panel, arguing that employers should be allowed to hire foreigners after showing that they couldn’t find Americans for the jobs they’re seeking to fill.

“American workers should have a first crack at available jobs,” the principles state, adding that business and labor have agreed to try to improve the means by which low-skilled workers, particularly those in “disadvantaged communities,” can find out about job openings.

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