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Labor, Business Lobby Making Headway On Immigration Talks

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AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has met with Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue to discuss immigration reform. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) | AP

WASHINGTON -- The AFL-CIO labor federation and the Chamber of Commerce announced on Thursday a compromise for dealing with lesser-skilled workers in immigration reform, by creating an independent federal bureau to track the need for employment-based immigration. But the groups also said they are still working on a more comprehensive solution.

"What is needed is the creation of a professional bureau in a federal executive agency to inform Congress and the public about these issues together with a system that provides for lesser-skilled visas that respond to employers’ needs while protecting the wages and working conditions of lesser-skilled workers -- foreign or domestic," Chamber President Tom Donohue and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a joint statement.

The two groups have been working together to find a deal on how to create a pathway to the U.S. for lesser-skilled workers on visas. Labor groups have been blamed in part for killing immigration reform efforts over guest worker issues, including in 2007 when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) worked together on legislation. Whether that's true is up for debate -- they weren't the only groups to oppose provisions of that bill -- but the AFL-CIO and Chamber have since renewed efforts to find a deal.

More recently, the groups have held regular meetings to discuss comprehensive reform, including between Donohue and Trumka.

Politico reported last week that talks between the AFL-CIO and Chamber had stalled and that they were far apart on many issues.

But the announcement from AFL-CIO and the Chamber should clarify that talks are progressing, said AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser.

"The shared principles issued today underscore the broad coalition that is committed to immigration reform," he said. "The AFL-CIO is committed to achieving a reliable roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million [undocumented immigrants] that works for all of America's working people."

But the announcement from AFL-CIO and the Chamber should clarify that talks are progressing, said AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser.

"The shared principles issued today underscore the broad coalition that is committed to immigration reform," he said. "The AFL-CIO is committed to achieving a reliable roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million [undocumented immigrants] that works for all of America's working people."

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters in a briefing later Thursday that the agreement between the two groups was good news, but declined to say whether President Barack Obama would support such a plan for lesser-skilled workers until the administration can see what the Senate produces.

"When you see the Chamber of Commerce coming together with the AFL-CIO and reaching an agreement on principles on this difficult issue, that represents significant progress," Carney said.

"We see this agreement on principles as a positive development, a sign of progress," he continued. "But I'm not going to pre-judge a bill that has not been written."

The deal announced on Thursday would include a few principles. It calls for U.S. workers to "have a first crack at available jobs," rather than businesses bringing in immigrant workers at cut-rate wages. If businesses cannot find American workers -- which purportedly has been a problem in sectors such as agriculture -- the two groups agreed that there must be a more efficient process for businesses to hire foreign workers.

"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," the announcement reads. "Among other things, this requires a new kind of worker visa program that does not keep all workers in a permanent temporary status, provides labor mobility in a way that still gives American workers a first shot at available jobs, and that automatically adjusts as the American economy expands and contracts."

The third piece of the agreement is that more data is needed to figure out exactly how many immigrants should be brought into the country for work. The current system doesn't allow for much flexibility, because figures are largely arbitrary and don't change based on demand. But the AFL-CIO has argued that technology could allow the government to better track ebbs and flows in the job market and respond to immigration needs accordingly.

Donohue and Trumka said they agree on the need for a professional bureau within a federal executive agency that would deal with the issue.

But they made clear that the talks are not over.

"We are now in the middle -- not the end -- of this process, and we pledge to continue to work together and with our allies and our representatives on Capitol Hill to finalize a solution that is in the interest of this country we all love," Donohue and Trumka wrote.

This article has been updated with a comment from White House press secretary Jay Carney.

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