GOP Optimistic Chamber Could Get Better Deal in House Immigration Bill

The carefully crafted negotiation between the AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce faces obstacles in the House of Representatives.

A handful of immigration reform proponents demonstrate during the Capitol Christmas Tree lighting ceremony on the West Front Dec. 3, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

If Congress is going to prevent a new influx of immigrants from entering the U.S. illegally in the future, it has to establish a visa system to bring future workers into the country system that works.

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The question of what to do with the 11 million immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally has dominated the immigration debate, as Democrats demand a path to citizenship and Republicans offer merely a path to legalization without the promise of citizenship, but a bigger question looms.

If Congress is going to prevent a new influx of immigrants from entering the U.S. illegally in the future, it has to establish a visa system to bring future workers into the country system that works. That’s where the immigration debate gets much more nebulous.

The coalition of labor and business groups who helped usher an immigration bill through the Senate in June of 2013 are still pushing for immigration reform in the House of Representatives, but the odd bedfellows are scaling a new, more challenging landscape where they will need a new game plan.

"It is a different strategy and different substance too," says Randy Johnson, the senior vice president of the

Labor, Immigration and Employee Benefits Division at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "The House Republicans are going to take the lead on this issue. They are going to do what they think is best."

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The agreement reached between the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce in March of 2013 saved the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill from teetering off the legislative cliff and left Washington celebrating the bold act of compromise. The carefully crafted provision established a new visa program for low skill workers and helped shore up Democratic and Republican support for immigration reform. The agreement, however, left both sides without getting everything they wanted.

The Chamber and the AFL-CIO agreed on creating a “W” visa program, which immigrants interested in jobs as retail workers, janitors, construction workers and hospitality employees could apply for. The special jurisdiction was a major concession for unions who had sought to keep the number of workers competing for U.S. jobs low in order to keep wages high. Meanwhile, the proposal set up a trigger to manage the influx of future immigrants and called for the creation of a Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research, an independent entity within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, that would calculate the number of workers needed to fill jobs left vacant in the U.S. That section, which set limits for the number of immigrants who could enter the country, was a major concession for the business community, which was hoping to get more visas out of the deal.

Now, the business community has an opportunity to recover some ground in a more favorable environment and GOP pundits argue it’s an opportunity they should seize. House Republicans have repeatedly echoed they won’t take up the Senate version of the immigration bill, which passed in June and included the union-business deal and multiple sources confirmed that Republican Reps. Raul Labrador of Idaho and Ted Poe of Texas, are working on their own legislation to establish a low-skill visa program. One GOP consultant who is in communication with the offices was optimistic the bill would increase the number of visas available to foreign workers. The offices did not respond to requests for comment.

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“You can be sure their plan will be more market oriented,” says Alfonso Aguilar, the executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a conservative immigration advocacy group. Senate Republicans are also encouraging their House counterparts to push for more low-skill immigrant visas than they were able to negotiate during their immigration debate.

“Some of us in the Senate who worked to get a larger guest worker plan, for example, hope that the House will do better than we did.” says Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who helped craft the bipartisan immigration bill in the Senate. “The AFL-CIO, to the extent they want to see a bill signed, will have to compromise.”

The AFL-CIO, however, warns that adjusting the deal could have serious consequences.

“That agreement took years and years. There is absolutely no reason why we would have to renegotiate it,” says Ana Avendaño, the director of immigration and community action at the AFL-CIO.

Unlike in the Senate where Democrats and union allies have the majority, the Republicans in the House have stronger ties to the business community.

A lot is at stake. In 2007, disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over what to do about the future flow of guest workers led to the demise of comprehensive immigration reform under President George W. Bush.

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“If the House tries to mess with it, they would be making a huge mistake,” says Frank Sharry, the  founder and executive director of America's Voice, the left-leaning immigration advocacy group. “While I understand that business wants more, they got a lot in the last deal and asking for more is a prescription for getting nothing.”

The AFL-CIO  is already driving a hard bargain on another key Republican principle. The union wants a “path to citizenship” for the nearly 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally, while Republicans have signaled they are open to a path to legalization, which would not bar immigrants from getting citizenship, but would not guarantee them a path either.

In order to pass immigration reform through the House, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has a balancing act ahead of him. He must convince enough of his Republican caucus to vote to legalize the 11 million ahead of a midterm election. But then, because few expect Boehner to be able to pass the entire series of bills with Republican votes alone, he must turn around and convince Democrats to support him. If the carefully crafted business and labor deal falls apart, that consensus could be harder to find.