Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) expressed concern about a deal over wages for… (Jacquelyn Martin, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Labor and business leaders have agreed to a plan for setting wages for a new category of low-skilled immigrant workers, possibly ending a scuffle that delayed negotiations in the Senate over a sweeping plan to overhaul the country's immigration system, officials involved said.
Senators drafting the bill are reviewing the compromise worked out Friday by representatives from the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But the breakthrough may put the bipartisan group of eight senators on track to unveil a bill soon after Congress returns from recess on April 8.
"We are very close — closer than we've ever been," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has been brokering discussions between labor and business leaders, said Friday in a statement about the Senate talks. "We are very optimistic but there are a few issues remaining."
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Thomas J. Donohue told Schumer in a phone call late Friday that they had reached an agreement, said an official who asked not to be identified, as did two others who spoke about the closed-door negotiations.
The union organization and chamber were asked by the senators in December to design a new foreign worker program that would satisfy labor shortages in the U.S. while protecting the rights of U.S. and incoming foreign workers.
The senators working on the compromise bill could not be reached Saturday. But the deal triggered a response from a key senator who opposes efforts to expand the number of work visas.
"Every American worker, union and nonunion, is right to be concerned about a large guest worker program combined with a large amnesty of illegal workers," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, which will review any immigration overhaul bill. "There is no doubt that such a plan will reduce Americans' wages and job prospects."
The senators — four Democrats and four Republicans — have spent four months drafting a bill that is intended to appeal to lawmakers in both parties. The comprehensive proposal would make dramatic changes in the nation's immigration system, including the new visa program and a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
A dispute between the labor and business negotiators flared up earlier this month over how much to pay immigrant workers in low-skill jobs such as landscaping, meatpacking and housekeeping. The impasse threatened to derail the talks and caused the senators to push back plans to finish writing the bill by the end of March.
Labor leaders wanted to ensure that the salaries of foreign workers would not depress the wages of Americans doing the same job in the same part of the country. The chamber was concerned that if employers were required to pay too much, businesses would not use the program and would continue to hire illegal immigrants.
After heated discussions last week, the two sides agreed that employers would pay the equivalent of either the actual wages paid to American workers or the prevailing wages, whichever was higher. The prevailing wage for a job is determined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics based on city, experience and training.
The workers would be admitted under a new class of visa, called the W visa. The current work visa programs are widely seen as inefficient and cumbersome to use.
Under the proposal, the number of visas issued each year would be determined by a formula based on job demand, unemployment numbers and other data. A new bureau likely based at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would be in charge of the visa allocation.
The number of visas could start at 20,000 the first year and move up or down based on job demand and unemployment levels. The program would be capped at 200,000 visas.
"Ultimately, the final decisions will be made by the senators involved," Randel Johnson, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement.
If the senators don't agree to the proposal, labor and business leaders will have to go back to the negotiating table.