On Saturday, immigration reform came one step closer to becoming reality when both business and labor groups signaled their approval of the same plan. The two interests came to a consensus on a new visa program for low-skilled workers, an issue which has long been a dealbreaker.
Congress was last close to passing an immigration reform bill in 2007, but labor and business were unable to come to a consensus and, ultimately, nothing happened. This year, a bipartisan group of eight senators has been working on a solution to address the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., one of the gang of eight, said Sunday that while the legislation has yet to be written, he hopes 2013 will finally be the year for immigration reform:
It's got to be written up ... But conceptually, we have an agreement between business and labor, between ourselves.
The tentative "W" visa program agreed upon by the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO will increase visa totals over four years, going from 20,000 to 75,000. After that time, the number of available visas will be determined by the unemployment rate and other factors. It would never exceed 200,000 per year, down from the 400,000 guest workers business groups wanted. Labor groups were successful in advocating worker protections like the ability for temporary workers to switch jobs, and avenues to get a green card and citizenship.
The chamber and the AFL-CIO have been the principal negotiators on the visa program, but other unions and industry groups may have issues with the plan. While both sides are wary of declaring all-out success, each sounds optimistic that the agreed upon visa program can become a reality. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the guest worker visas would be a "modern visa system":
The strength of the consensus across America for just reform has afforded us the momentum needed to forge an agreement in principle to develop a new type of employer visa system … 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 gang of eight is expected to introduce its bill when Congress returns from recess the week of April 8. The legislation will also include tougher border security and a path to citizenship for the undocumented already in the United States. But Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the senators in the bipartisan group, warned Sunday against getting too confident that a deal had been reached, calling reports that there is a final legislative proposal "premature."
The Republican-controlled House, generally less cordial towards immigration reform, is also crafting a bipartisan bill to be introduced when Congress reconvenes next week.
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