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Behind-the-scenes deal pushes immigration reform closer to reality

The US Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO came up with a framework for solving one of the thorniest issues in immigration reform. The agreement shows momentum is growing.

By Staff writer / February 21, 2013

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (c.) speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington in this file photo. The AFL-CIO reached an agreement with the US Chamber of Commerce Thursday on one key aspect of immigration reform.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File

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Washington

A compromise agreement announced Thursday between the nation’s largest labor union and the top advocate for American business underscores the enormous momentum now behind immigration reform.

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The agreement touches on what was seen to be potentially one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the immigration reform debate – namely, how the country should handle the flow of low-skilled, temporary foreign workers.

In finding middle ground, the AFL-CIO and the US Chamber of Commerce – two powerful organizations often at loggerheads – have taken a “strong step forward” in resolving the issue, says Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. Moreover, they have added to the impression that important stakeholders – seeing immigration reform as increasingly likely – are putting aside public posturing in order to hammer out solutions. 

“This particular slice of the pie is the most important piece: What does our immigration system look like moving forward?” Mr. Noorani says. “Every day, [the Chamber and the AFL-CIO] are going to continue to put more meat on these bones.... For them to agree, even on the bones, means that they've been engaged in a really serious negotiation.”

Praise for the deal came from both sides of the aisle – House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia and Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York. "We are very hopeful that an agreement can be reached on a specific proposal in the next few weeks," said Senator Schumer, a member of the bipartisan Senate group working on an immigration compromise, in a statement.

 The principles of the agreement call for creating an independent commission that would study the labor market and propose tweaks to the number of lower-skilled workers admitted to the country. Currently, the number of temporary workers allowed into the country is set predominantly by quotas that continue at stable rates from year to year no matter the economic condition in the US.

The problem with the current system, all sides agree, is that it leaves worker shortages when the economy is surging and allows too many workers to enter the country when economic activity slackens. The AFL-CIO and the US Chamber of Commerce addressed this in their joint statement on Thursday.

“Our challenge is to create a mechanism that responds to the needs of business in a market-driven way, while also fully protecting the wages and working conditions of U.S. and immigrant workers,” it read.

While important details remain to be worked out, the Chamber and AFL-CIO said Thursday that the goal was achievable.

“The power of today’s technology enables us to use that knowledge to craft a workable demand-driven process fed by data that will inform how America addresses future labor shortages,” the two groups said in the statement.

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