The "gang of eight," a bipartisan group of senators who have been working since November to secure a temporary worker program to appease both the business community and labor unions, scored a big victory over the weekend when the AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce struck a deal on a contentious low-skilled worker visa program. But everyone from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to NumbersUSA, a group that would like to see tighter controls on immigration, warn there are still many mountains to climb before reform is final.
While much has been made of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and if they should receive a "path to citizenship," lawmakers who have fought previous immigration battles say figuring out how to determine the number of low-skilled workers who will be allowed to enter the country has been the real poison pill that has killed prior negotiations.
"I think it is the biggest single area where immigration reform could have floundered. It has historically been the problem with immigration reform," says Brent Wilkes, the National Executive Director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "This [agreement] is definitely on track to be the strongest effort for decades."
The compromise would create a new "W-visa" program slated to begin in 2015. Immigrants who work in lesser-skilled non-agricultural jobs, such as janitors, retail, construction workers and hospitality employees would be eligible for the program.
"We have created a new model, a modern visa system that includes both a bureau to collect and analyze labor market data, as well as significant worker protections," Richard Trumka, leader of the AFL-CIO, said in a released statement. "We expect that this new program, which benefits not just business, but everyone, will promote long overdue reforms by raising the bar for existing programs."
The proposal sets up a mechanism to manage the influx of future immigrants and creates a new Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research, an independent entity within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The agency's job will be to set caps on how many workers will receive the visas each year, as well as study the impact immigrants have on the country's economy.
The bureau is slated to give out 20,000 visas in the first year, increasing to 75,000 visas over a four-year span. The bureau will use an economic formula to determine how many workers the country's economy can support in the fifth year, with the number of visas never dropping below 20,000 or climbing higher than 200,000.
Some immigration groups caution those numbers will not solve the existing immigration problem.
Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, argues that the numbers are not enough to replace the existing illegal immigrant work force.
Jacoby points out that when the economy was healthy in the early 2000s, more than 350,000 immigrants illegally entered the country very year. Even in the depths of economic stagnation, Jacoby says her group estimates 150,000 undocumented immigrants crossed our borders. Jacoby worries even with enforced border security and a stronger employee verification system, illegal immigration will still persist.
"That is the danger...The forgery business will get better. The cartels that are bringing people will get better and nature will find a way," Jacoby says. "That won't be nearly enough to replace illegal immigration."
NumbersUSA warns that creating more bureaucracy is the wrong approach.
"It is kind of surreal to have these groups talking about how large a guest worker program we need for low-skilled workers when we have 20 million Americans who cannot find full-time work," says Rosemary Jenks, the director of government relations for NumbersUSA. "We have no need for low-skilled workers in this country. We have plenty of our own. Americans have always done our own dirty work. We have always cleaned hotel rooms, we have always done ditch digging."
Immigration-control groups also worry that the proposal would lead to a rapid growth in immigrants because the W-visa is not temporary. Workers who qualify for the program can apply for permanent status after one year.
Another reminder of how fragile negotiations on the subject remain: Hours after the business and labor communities celebrated their agreement, Rubio threw a bit of cold water on the glowing headlines.
"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...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," Rubio said in a release Sunday. "In order to succeed, this process cannot be rushed or done in secret."
Wilkes says that it is important to remember that while the gang of eight continues to work together and overcome obstacles, the group still has to tackle how it will handle family visas. A significant chunk of immigrants don't enter the country for work, but are sponsored by a family member.
Part of the compromise on immigration reform might mean giving fewer family visas to increase the number of STEM visas the government can allocate.
"That is a potential flash point left," Wilkes says. "Those waits are really long already and this would make it worse."