The nation’s top business and labor groups have reached an agreement on a guest worker program for low-skilled immigrants, a person with knowledge of the negotiations said on Saturday.
The agreement was reached on Friday night in a conference call between the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donohue, and the president of the AFL-CIO labor organization, Richard Trumka, with New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer acting as the mediator, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The agreement marks a major breakthrough and significantly improves the odds of passing a larger immigration bill because it brings two powerful Washington interests on board on an issue that contributed to the defeat of past reform efforts.
Pay for guest workers was the last major sticking point on a broad immigration package, and one that had stalled the eight senators just before the break. The eight senators still need to sign off on the agreement between the business and labor groups, the person with knowledge of the talks said.
“This issue has always been the deal breaker on immigration reform, but not this time,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.
The senators have reached tentative agreement on many of the major issues, including the path to citizenship and border security, but they have yet to review the legislative language and caution that they don’t have a deal until they agree on everything, says Politico.
Labor unions have argued against a guest-worker program, worrying that a flood of low-wage immigrant laborers would take away jobs from Americans. The agreement covers the pay levels for low-skilled temporary workers and the types of jobs that would be included.
Another sticking point, involving the specific type of jobs that would be included in the guest worker program, was also resolved.
Though low-skilled construction workers will be included in the visa program, construction unions persuaded the negotiators to exclude certain types of more skilled jobs — like crane operators and electricians — from the program, officials involved in the talks said.
According to officials with the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the program would start at 20,000 visas, rising to 35,000 visas in the second year, 55,000 in the third and 75,000 in the fourth.
In the fifth year, the program would expand or shrink based on the unemployment rate, the ratio of job openings to unemployed workers and various other factors. The agreement calls for a maximum of 200,000 guest visas granted each year, says the NY Times.
Under the deal, a new “W Visa” would be created for employers to petition for foreign workers in lesser skilled, non-seasonal non-agricultural occupations. This could include jobs in hospitality, janitorial, retail, construction and others.
The W Visa would not be considered a temporary visa as workers would have the ability to seek permanent status after a year, according to details of the agreement released by the AFL-CIO.
The program would begin on April 1, 2015, unless there is a need to extend the start date by six months, reports Reuters.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Gang of Eight, sent a letter Saturday to Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) urging against “excessive haste” when considering the expected bill.
Rubio asked that Leahy hold “meaningful hearings,” with a particular focus on border security and the benchmarks that must be met before undocumented immigrants can obtain legal permanent residence status.
“My strong belief that the success of any major legislation depends on the acceptance and support of the American people,” Rubio wrote in the letter.
“That support can only be earned through full and careful consideration of legislative language and an open process of amendments.”
Immigration long has been a controversial issue in the United States and previous efforts to craft a comprehensive overhaul of American immigration laws have failed, with Democrats and Republicans remaining far apart.
Many Republicans previously had taken a hard position against illegal immigrants. Obama’s unsuccessful Republican challenger last year, Mitt Romney, had advocated “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants. Republicans in Arizona and other states passed tough laws cracking down on illegal immigrants.