GOP Toes Big Business’s Immigration Reform Line

What’s holding up a bill? GOP obstinacy about the details of a guest worker program.

By + More
President Barack Obama watches as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, center, administers the Oath of Allegiance at a naturalization ceremony for active duty service members and civilians, Monday, March 25, 2013, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. At right is Alejandro Mayorkas, director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

On Monday, speaking at a naturalization ceremony for active duty service members and civilians, President Obama urged Congress to finish their work on one of his top priorities, immigration reform legislation. "The time has come for comprehensive sensible immigration reform," he said. "We are making progress, but we've got to finish the job."

So, what is the holdup? So far, the "gang of eight"—a bipartisan group of eight senators who have been tasked with drafting Senate legislation—has found broad agreement on the two most contentious issues of the past: border security and a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented individuals.

This time around, however, it appears that the thorniest piece of the puzzle seems to be guest worker programs—providing employment-based visas for lower-skilled labor. It's another chapter in the age-old battle between labor unions and business. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

For the lower-skilled workers, businesses such as farming, landscaping and hospitality companies argue that they need a larger supply of seasonal workers to fill their jobs, while unions argue that visas should not be extended unless the workers are guaranteed the same wage levels as current American workers.

Business leaders have already won a major concession from the unions just to get to this place in the negotiations. In the past, a majority of unions have been unwilling to compromise and allow for temporary guest visas but they now acknowledge that the undocumented workers are both their current members and key to their future membership growth. So they have dropped their opposition in hopes that their softer position will help them attract and organize more Hispanic workers instead of alienating them.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

But, they are insistent that the workers are paid the same wage as American workers. The latest offer to set the wage rate for foreign workers at the median of the wages for that particular job was rejected by Senate Republicans representing business interests. So the question becomes, what is an acceptable wage?

Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio recently said on the Mark Levin talk show that this is a "big fight the president is going to have to have if he's really interested in moving this forward."

Republicans already face major branding issues, not only with Hispanic voters but also with middle class voters who fear they only champion the economics of the upper 1percent at their expense. Arguing to pay a whole new workforce lower wages doesn't seem to be a winning formula to appeal to those lost voters.

  • Read Peter Roff: House Republicans Need to Get Back to Repealing Obamacare
  • Read Susan Milligan: Moving Iowa and New Hampshire Primaries Won't Make for Better Elections
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad