Labor leaders leave a meeting with President Obama to discuss immigration… (Alex Wong, Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — Business and labor leaders have hammered out the outline of a compromise on one of the hardest issues in reforming the nation's immigration system -- how to handle future needs for foreign workers in the U.S.
Although both sides say key details remain to be negotiated, the deal clears away a significant roadblock to further action in Congress.
The bipartisan group of eight senators, which has been crafting an immigration bill, plan to meet next week to discuss the issue. The senators have been waiting to see the results of the talks between the business and labor groups.
President Obama and congressional Democrats have said that any immigration deal must provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. Republicans have argued that Congress should not consider legalization without policies to prevent a future wave of unauthorized entries.
Labor and business representatives have met for the last several months to find a way to create a legal system for bringing foreign workers into the country for low-wage jobs such as restaurant workers and home-care aides. That move would greatly reduce the incentive for illegal immigration, supporters argue.
"Fixing the immigration system will create a more attractive labor supply, will lower the cost of business, and we will have more customers," said Natalie Gochnour, chief economist at Salt Lake Chamber in Salt Lake City. Utah businesses are facing labor shortages in hourly wage jobs and high-skilled jobs, she said.
Under the new proposal, companies that cannot find U.S. workers would be allowed to hire foreign workers. Those workers would enter the country under a newly created program of immigrant-worker visas. Companies would have to advertise jobs to Americans first.
The agreement calls for creating a federal expert bureau that would make recommendations on the number of foreign workers allowed into the country each year. The recommendations would be based on unemployment data and other information about labor-market conditions in particular industries.
The agreement involves a trade-off. For the first time, the AFL-CIO agreed to support establishing a temporary guest-worker program for low-skilled labor.
The Chamber of Commerce agreed that the number of workers admitted under the new visa would expand and contract with the economy. In addition, the visa would not tie a worker to a particular employer, a step designed to protect workers from the threat that they could be deported if they had a dispute with their boss.
Workers also would receive protections on wages and working conditions. At least some would be allowed eventually to apply for a green card, which would give them lawful permanent residence.
The chamber also signed onto a long-standing labor demand that an independent entity -- the new expert bureau -- have the authority to study labor data and recommend curtailing work visas when unemployment is high.
The proposed bureau would have "political independence analogous to the Bureau of Labor Statistics," according to a joint statement released Thursday by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and U.S. Chamber of Commerce head Thomas J. Donohue.
The bureau would make recommendations, but it would then be up to Congress to set visa numbers, as it does now.
Disagreement on that issue was a key factor in scuttling the last effort to reform the nation's immigration laws, under President George W. Bush in 2007.
Both sides hailed the new agreement as a major step.
"For the first time, labor and business have agreed publicly to commit to immigration reform," said Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, one of the labor groups involved along with the AFL-CIO in the negotiations with the Chamber of Commerce.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) applauded the deal, calling it "a positive step on immigration reform."
"While we may not agree on every aspect, it is encouraging that two groups often on opposite sides of the aisle are serious about putting politics aside and finding solutions," said Cantor. "Let's hope we can follow that lead in the months ahead."
A spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the eight senators negotiating immigration legislation, also praised the move, while criticizing Obama for not putting forward his own version of a guest-worker program.
However, some Republicans dissented -- an indication that any deal is likely to face stiff resistance from members of Congress who fear that new immigrants take jobs from Americans.
"The chamber's primary goal has never been to establish a lawful immigration system and secure our borders, but to get as much cheap labor as possible, regardless of how it impacts American workers, legal immigrants and taxpayers in general," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Top negotiators for the chamber and the AFL-CIO began meeting shortly after the November election.
The details of exactly how the visa system would work and how the labor bureau would be set up will likely be negotiated between labor and business with input from the senators in the group, said Ana Avendano, the chief negotiator for the AFL-CIO.
She described long hours over the past several weeks working out the terms of the agreement with her counterparts at the chamber.
"If labor and business can agree to work on a set of principles and move forward," she said, "we expect the Senate to do to the same and to look past the partisan issues and get things done."