WASHINGTON -- Two of the nation's most powerful interest groups -- labor and business, often at loggerheads -- have come to a rare agreement on the guiding principles for handling future low-skilled immigrant workers.
While a deal is far from finalized, it's a significant step toward surmounting a major roadblock on immigration: temporary workers.
The agreement between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO establishes a set of principles for low-skilled worker visas. The guidelines include creating a visa program that would allow some temporary workers the chance to become permanent residents, establishing a federal bureau that would oversee the program and giving American workers more information -- a "first crack" -- on available jobs.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's president and chief executive officer, Thomas J. Donohue, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka described immigration as an urgent national priority.
"The fact that business and labor can come together to negotiate in good faith over contentious issues should be a signal to Congress and the American people that support for immigration reform is widespread and growing, and is important to our economy and our society," they said in a joint statement Thursday announcing the agreement.
Bipartisan lawmakers working on the immigration overhaul see buy-in from the two groups as key to reaching a compromise between pro-labor Democrats and pro-business Republicans in Congress, but their differences have long been some of the most difficult to resolve.
Many Republicans see the temporary-worker program as crucial to providing businesses needed labor while limiting future waves of illegal immigration. But labor unions, and some Democrats who support them, have opposed expanding the programs, insisting on a path to citizenship. They say the programs breed abusive practices and are unfair competition for American laborers.
"While the devil will be in the details in terms of fleshing these principles out, our staffs have had very productive discussions with both sides this week," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, said in a statement. Schumer is one of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators who are working on developing an agreement for an immigration overhaul.
"We are very hopeful that an agreement can be reached on a specific proposal in the next few weeks," he said.
The issue hits a variety of industries across the country: Strawberry farmers in California's Central Valley and wine makers in Washington state's Tri-Cities area say they need more workers in the fields. Poultry plant managers in North Carolina and South Carolina want more workers on the assembly lines.
Five years ago, a behind-the-scenes fight between labor and business helped derail an effort to overhaul immigration law when Senate Democrats introduced an amendment that would have phased out a new program to increase the number of temporary workers.
The agreement announced Thursday received praise from both sides of the aisle.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said it demonstrated how groups often on opposite sides of the aisle could put politics aside to find solutions.
"Let's hope we can follow that lead in the months ahead," he said in a statement.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the agreement "represents significant progress," but noted that it wasn't a comprehensive bill. President Barack Obama's immigration proposal doesn't include a program for low-wage immigrant workers, and Carney refused Thursday to say whether the president would endorse such an effort.
"I'm not going to prejudge a bill that hasn't been written," Carney said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who's also a member of the bipartisan Senate team working on immigration, has described Obama's proposal as a "half-baked" plan that "does nothing to address guest workers or future flow, which serious immigration experts agree is critical to preventing future influxes of illegal immigrants."
Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said Thursday that the labor and business agreement was encouraging. He questioned the president's "continued refusal to support" a guest worker program despite bipartisan consensus that one is needed.
The chamber and union leaders cautioned that the talks are far from over.
"We are now in the middle -- not the end -- of this process," Donohue and Trumka said.
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