Business-Labor Deal Marks Major Step To Immigration Bill

A deal between business and labor leaders on allocating visas to low-skilled foreign workers improves the chances that the Senate will pass an immigration bill, said three members of the bipartisan group of senators who are negotiating an agreement.

Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said he expected the bill to reach the Judiciary Committee in April and the full Senate in May.

“With the agreement between business and labor, every major policy issue has been resolved,” Schumer, one of the eight senators negotiating the agreement, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

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 written.

“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 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.

‘First Step’

The plan is “just a first step” on what will be a long and rocky road toward revamping U.S. immigration law, said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a nationwide federation of state-based business groups that advocate rewriting immigration laws.

If history is any guide, “battles will be fierce” and immigration-law proposals will face additional obstacles as they work through Congress, Jacoby said yesterday.

Aides to lawmakers and the Chamber of Commerce stressed that the deal hasn’t been approved by the bipartisan Senate group.

“The senators will make the decisions about any final agreements and what makes the best public policy overall,” Blair Latoff Holmes, spokeswoman for the U.S. Chamber, said in an e-mailed statement.

Republican Challenge

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 yesterday in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, that “a rush to legislate, without fully considering all views and input from all senators, could be fatal to the effort of earning the public’s confidence.”

Rubio said today in a statement 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.

Citizenship Path

The effort’s centerpiece would establish a 13-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., which Obama has made a priority for his second term.

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.”

Comments made March 27 by Representative Don Young, an Alaska Republican, highlighted some of the tensions and political challenges his party faces as it discusses immigration and works to attract Hispanic voters.

‘Insensitive’ Comment

On radio station KRBD in Ketchikan, Alaska, Young referred to Hispanic farm workers as “wetbacks,” drawing quick condemnation from lawmakers in both parties, including Representative John Boehner, an Ohio Republican who is speaker of the House.

Young, 79, has been in the House for 40 years, making him the fifth-longest-serving current member.

He issued two statements, apologizing in the second one for the “insensitive term” and saying there was “no malice” intended.

Schumer said today that Young’s latest statement was “fuller” than a previous one in which Young didn’t apologize.

To get the business-labor agreement 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.

Senate Compromise

“This issue has always been the deal-breaker on immigration reform, but not this time,” Schumer said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.

The agreement “seems like a fair compromise,” said Marshall Fitz, head of immigration policy at the Democratic-aligned Center for American Progress. “The two sides have been looking at this through the prism of what they were losing. Appears they have reached a point where they both understand that they are getting a lot of what they wanted.”

“I think this agreement will seal the deal” for a Senate compromise, Fitz said. “Labor gets more data-driven accountability in the system; business gets a new worker program that is more flexible than the current patchwork of temporary visas.”

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.

Visa Program

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.

‘New Model’

“Each day we have become more encouraged that our goal is in reach, and quickly,” Trumka said yesterday in a statement. “We have created a new model, a modern visa system that includes both a bureau to collect and analyze labor market data, as well as significant worker protections.”

The proposal also 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 deal between labor and business would apply to visas issued to foreign workers in low-skilled fields such as construction and restaurant and hotel work. It doesn’t deal with the issue of farm workers, who are covered under the existing H-2A program, which provides for temporary labor to complete seasonal tasks, mainly harvests.

Verifying Status

Groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the biggest U.S. farmer group, say the H-2A program’s regulations are too onerous and inflexible and are lobbying for its replacement. The United Farmworkers say any new plan must include wage and labor-condition protections.

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.

Flake and Schumer also said they were working on creating “metrics” to measure the progress toward securing the U.S. border with Mexico.

“We’re going to have to have that before we go any further,” Flake said.

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