The nation's top two labor federations announced a framework Tuesday for comprehensive immigration reform, setting aside differences with the hope of pushing legislation through this year.
The agreement, supported by the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win federation, supports the legalization of the nation's 12 million undocumented immigrants and the formation of an independent commission to analyze the labor market's needs and assess shortages for the admission of future foreign workers. The unions oppose any new guest worker programs that would allow employers to bring foreigners in on a temporary basis.
"Today's unified agreement by the labor movement is a major step forward to pass immigration reform," Eliseo Medina, international executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, said during a phone news conference. "We believe that the time is right for finally reforming our immigration system."
The labor unions, however, will probably face opposition from business groups.
Randel Johnson of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said he was suspicious about a commission that could become politicized and concerned that businesses would not be able to get the employees they needed without temporary worker programs. Without the backing of business, he said, immigration reform won't pass.
The unions "do need our support," said Johnson, the chamber's vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits. "They know the reality, and they are pretending it doesn't exist."
President Obama says he intends to pursue immigration reform, even though the country is in a recession that could make it harder for legislation to pass.
An immigration bill failed in the Senate in 2007. The unions were divided on the best approach at the time.
"We've found in the past division hasn't helped any of us," said Ana Avendano, director of the Immigrant Worker Program at the AFL-CIO. "What division has done in the past is really fueled both anti-immigrant hatred and helped business to move an agenda that really only benefited corporations."
Labor leaders said they planned to begin meeting with members of Congress to market their proposal. They also said they intended to work with community groups, churches and civil rights groups.
Immigrant rights groups also plan to hold news conferences, town hall meetings and hearings across the nation to mobilize support for reform and to highlight what they say is the harm caused by a lack of legislation.
"We will do whatever it takes, whatever is necessary, to really encourage our legislators and encourage the people of the United States to really support this position," said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers.
The unions support the creation of a worker verification program that would determine whether employees are authorized to work in the U.S., while preventing discrimination and providing privacy protections.
In addition, the unions included border security as a tenant of their plan but wrote in the agreement that enforcement should not be the responsibility of local law enforcement and should focus on "criminal elements."