Senate Group Close on Immigration Rewrite, Schumer Says

President Barack Obama said he is confident that an immigration bill will pass in the next several months, as key Senators charged with crafting the legislation indicated that their process is almost complete.

Speaking to reporters after touring the U.S.-Mexico border with other lawmakers, New York Senator Charles Schumer said a bipartisan Senate group is “90 percent” done with its draft of a bill to revamp U.S. immigration law.

“Bottom line is, we are very close,” Schumer, a Democrat who is part of an eight-member group working on the proposal, said today at the news conference in Arizona. Talks were left unresolved last week, when Congress left for its holiday recess without striking a deal.

Union workers and business groups disagree over visas for low-skilled workers. Obama and senators from both parties signaled today that they were open to solving that dispute and were working on the details.

“Labor and businesses may not always agree exactly on how to do this, but this is a resolvable issue,” the president said in an interview with Spanish-language station Telemundo today. “I’m optimistic.”

Overhauling the country’s immigration system is Obama’s top legislative priority for his second term. Still, wary of undermining talks with Republicans, he’s taken a back seat in negotiating a bill. Rather then advocate for specific proposals, he’s spoken privately to lawmakers in the group and dispatched aides to provide technical support.

Mexico Trip

Obama today gave interviews with Spanish-language stations and announced a trip in early May to Mexico and central America as part of an effort to nudge lawmakers toward a compromise.

“My sense is that they’ve come close and my expectation is that we’ll actually see a bill on the floor of the Senate next month,” he said in an interview with Univision today.

One area where his administration differs from the principles circulated in January by the Senate group is over linking a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country to tighter border security -- something Republicans want and Obama opposes.

Schumer said today’s border tour, which he took with fellow Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans, and Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet, would make it easier for him to explain to his Democratic Senate colleagues why Republicans are insisting on measurable increases in border security as part of a plan. McCain, Flake and Bennet are members of the Senate group.

Visa Dispute

Schumer said the trip convinced him that federal agents “have adequate manpower but not adequate technology” at the border.

Earlier today, McCain posted on his Twitter account that the group had witnessed a woman “a few yards away” climbing an 18-foot security fence to enter the U.S. during the tour.

“Most of the people who jump over the fence are doing it because they want a better life, and I understand that,” McCain later told reporters, adding that part of the group’s aim was to provide better legal options for such people.

The biggest issue in the talks, however, is how to resolve a long-simmering dispute between organized labor and business groups over a new program to provide U.S. work visas to low-skilled foreign workers and the wages that businesses should be required to pay those workers.

Labor unions say U.S. businesses are trying to create a program that would let them import workers who could be easily exploited and paid low wages. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said he’s trying to secure an exemption for the construction industry until the jobless rate in that sector improves.

Jobless Rate

“Until the unemployment rate gets down to a certain level, you don’t bring them in,” Trumka said in an interview taped for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program to air this weekend. “You hire the people that are here, that are already trained, that have experience and are ready to go,” he said.

The specific unemployment rate is still being negotiated, Trumka said.

The AFL-CIO wants the Chamber of Commerce and congressional Republicans to agree to language that says the U.S. won’t issue visas at a wage rate that will reduce or hurt U.S. workers’ wages or benefits. The Labor Department would determine what that number should be.

While Trumka said business groups initially objected to the offer, he’s hopeful there will be an agreement. “I think we’ll get past this issue,” he said.

Visa System

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 a certain wage, in some cases much higher than would otherwise be required.

‘Difficult Parts’

A third Republican member of the Senate group, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, last week called the guest-worker issue “one of the more difficult parts” of the negotiations and said he wouldn’t support a bill “that doesn’t create a process whereby people can come to this country temporarily in the future if we need them.”

Another contentious issue in the talks has been how to accommodate Republicans’ demand to increase the number of visas awarded to foreign nationals who receive graduate degrees in science and technology fields from a U.S. universities.

A compromise may require a tradeoff between more job-related visas and the annual allotment of 65,000 visas for adult siblings of naturalized U.S. citizens.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said legislation to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws must not adversely affect family unification provisions already in place.

“The question is how do these people still come in,” the California lawmaker said when asked about reports that bipartisan negotiators may drop some of the visa allotments for relatives of permanent legal residents.

“At the end of the day we still want family unification, however we get to that place,” Pelosi told reporters today.

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