A bipartisan group of senators could be a week away from a comprehensive immigration overhaul deal after top representatives from business and labor signed off on a guest worker plan Friday evening.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.), a member of the bipartisan group, spoke with both AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue Friday evening, according to someone familiar with the discussion. On a call, the trio confirmed that business and unions had reached a deal on a new visa program for future low-skilled immigrant workers, one of the most difficult issues that had been holding up an immigration deal.
On Saturday Mr. Schumer briefed White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on the agreement.
“The president continues to be encouraged by progress being made by the bipartisan group of Senators,” said Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman. “We look forward to seeing language once it is introduced, and expect legislation to move forward as soon as possible.”
The last hurdle will be getting all eight senators – Mr. Schumer, John McCain (R., Ariz.), Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) and Michael Bennet (D., Colo.) – to sign off on a broad deal. While there are still outstanding issues, senators have said the guest worker program was the most challenging to resolve.
Still, someone familiar with the talks cautioned that it could take a week or so before senators agree to a broad deal to strengthen border security and allow a path to citizenship for the more than 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
“This is not tantamount to an agreement on the bill,” the person said. “People are going to want to see legislative language, come back and inspect it.”
The senators are in the midst of a two-week recess, which ends April 8. They had hoped to reach an agreement before leaving Washington, but a battle over how to structure the guest worker program caused a delay.
Even if the group of senators reaches a deal, the legislation faces a tough battle. Any legislation that passes the Senate will need to be reconciled with the House, where a bipartisan group is working on its own immigration effort. Some House Republicans have been critical of a path to citizenship.
This week business and labor hashed out the final details of the controversial guest worker program. It will allow businesses to bring in immigrants each year to work in year-round, low-wage jobs like janitorial positions or construction work.
In order to qualify for the program, employers will have to prove they first tried to recruit American workers, according to labor unions’ understanding of the agreement.
The program is capped at 200,000 immigrants per year, but will adjust lower depending on the state of the U.S. economy. It would launch on April 1, 2015, with an option to delay the start date by six months, and would begin at 20,000 visas, the minimum amount available in the new program. That number will gradually ramp up until year five, when the size of the program will begin adjusting based on economic conditions.
Special carve outs were also included for small businesses: a third of the visas each year will be reserved for companies with fewer than 25 employees, according to labor.
The deal also limits the number of visas available to the construction industry to a maximum of 15,000 per year.
To calculate how many visas will be allotted each year, a formula will take into account the unemployment rate, the number of job openings per American searching for work and the number of visas requested the prior year.
The new program will create a Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research that will also help set the cap for the new visa program, release shortage lists by occupation and report to Congress on ways to improve employer-based immigration, according to labor. Employers will get priority treatment for visas if they’re seeking to fill occupations on the shortage lists.
Such a solution may prove difficult to implement. The Chamber has previously pointed out that it’s nearly impossible to gauge labor shortages using reliable data in real time, in part because such a data collection system would be prohibitively expensive.
The new bureau, which will be headed by a presidential appointee that requires Senate approval, would operate within U.S Citizenship and Immigration Service. Employer fees will pay for the bureau, according to labor. The agreement prohibits employers from transferring any fees under the new program to employees, according to labor.
The deal also seeks to increase protections for immigrant workers by allowing them to petition for permanent legal status after a year. They’ll be able to switch jobs once they arrive in the U.S., as well.
The agreement requires the Secretary of Labor to certify foreign labor recruiters, a move that’s designed to curb abuse of immigrant workers in their native countries. In some cases foreign recruiters have charged workers high fees to apply for worker visas. Some laborers have reported instances of extortion.
Business and labor agreed to a detailed list of professions that would be covered under the guest worker program, and there are some exemptions, such as for high-skilled construction jobs.