A major speed bump on the path to comprehensive immigration reform appears to have been removed. That’s the issue of guest workers – low-skilled immigrants who come to the United States under a temporary visa program.
Over the weekend, senior business and labor representatives came to an agreement on how many such workers could enter the US each year, what jobs they could hold, and what the pay scale would be.
The agreement was reached in a phone call late Friday night with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, US Chamber of Commerce head Tom Donohue, and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, who's been mediating the dispute, reports CBS News.
By Sunday morning, senior lawmakers of both parties were confirming that a deal had been reached, and that this was an important step toward reform – including how to address the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the US today.
"I think we've got a deal,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We've got to write the legislation, but 2013, I hope, will be the year that we pass bipartisan immigration reform.”
"It will pass the [Republican-controlled] House because it secures our borders, it controls who gets a job … [and] the 11 million [undocumented immigrants] will have a pathway to citizenship, but it will be earned, it will be long, and it will be hard," Senator Graham said.
Graham and Senator Schumer are members of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators working to achieve immigration reform.
“I am very, very optimistic that we will have an agreement among the eight of us next week,” Schumer said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “[Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick] Leahy has agreed to have extensive markup and debate on the bill in April, and then we go to the floor in, God willing, in May. So I think we're on track. This is a major, major obstacle that's overcome.”
“I’m encouraged by reports of an agreement between business groups and unions on the issue of guest workers,” he said. “However, reports that the bipartisan group of eight senators have agreed on a legislative proposal are premature.”
Senator Rubio then laid out what he sees as the legislative road ahead:
“We have made substantial progress, and I believe we will be able to agree on a legislative proposal that modernizes our legal immigration system, improves border security and enforcement and allows those here illegally to earn the chance to one day apply for permanent residency contingent upon certain triggers being met. However, that legislation will only be a starting point.
“We will need a healthy public debate that includes committee hearings and the opportunity for other senators to improve our legislation with their own amendments. Eight senators from seven states have worked on this bill to serve as a starting point…. But arriving at a final product will require it to be properly submitted for the American people’s consideration, through the other 92 senators from 43 states that weren’t part of this initial drafting process. In order to succeed, this process cannot be rushed or done in secret.”
Schumer acknowledged the challenges in changing an immigration system that has major economic, political, and social implications across the country.
“As Senator Rubio correctly says, we have said we will not come to final agreement till we look at all of the legislative language,” he said on “Meet the Press” Sunday. “And he's correctly pointing out that that language hasn't been fully drafted. There'll be little kerfuffles. But I don't think any of us expect there to be problems."
Immigration reform is one of President Obama’s top priorities, and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough was kept informed of the business-labor negotiations on guest workers by Schumer, who facilitated those discussions.
“The president continues to be encouraged by progress being made by the bipartisan group of senators,” White House spokesman Clark Stevens said in a statement Saturday. “We look forward to seeing language once it is introduced, and expect legislation to move forward as soon as possible.”
Even if the group of senators reaches a deal, the legislation faces a tough battle, The Wall Street Journal notes. A bipartisan group in the House is working on its own immigration effort. Some Republicans there have been critical of any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the US today.
Here are some details on the weekend agreement as reported by Politico:
Employers would be required to pay either the prevailing wage in the area of employment or the actual wage level received by individuals with similar experience and qualities – whichever is greater.
The size of the program would ramp up over time, from 20,000 visas in the first year to 75,000 in the fourth year. In the fifth year, the program would shrink or grow based on the unemployment rate, the ratio of job openings to workers seeking employment, and other factors. The cap can never go below 20,000 or above 200,000 in any year.
To resolve the standoff with the construction unions, the deal includes a cap of 15,000 visas for certain higher-skilled professions in their industry.
The visa holders could petition for permanent status after a year, and they would not be tied to a single employer.