Chamber, labor reach deal on low-skilled guest worker program

Business and labor groups have reached an agreement to establish a new low-skilled worker program, clearing one of the last major hurdles to legislative efforts to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO resolved differences on how many visas should be offered in a program for temporary workers and how much those workers should be paid, according to a report from the Associated Press.

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The agreement on a critical issue business groups and organized labor have battled over for years will likely bolster efforts in the Senate to finalize a comprehensive immigration reform package a bipartisan group hopes to unveil in April.

Disagreements over low-skilled workers was one issue which helped derail the last major push for immigration reform in 2007, and once again threatened negotiations this time around.

The influential business lobby and labor federation had been negotiating for weeks in hopes of reaching an agreement, but talks had stalled recently, and a self-imposed Senate deadline was looming.

Helping to pave the way toward a deal, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y), a member of the Senate immigration group, spoke with U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue on Friday afternoon, a Chamber spokeswoman told The Hill on Saturday.

But she said it would be up to the group of senators to determine the final policy that would lead to an agreement.

Under the proposal, a new "W-visa" program for low-skilled workers would begin with 20,000 visas, according to the AFL-CIO. The number of visas would grow gradually to a cap of 200,000, with the number offered in any year varying based on the unemployment rate as well as changes in the labor market.

A new Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research would make recommendations about the program and set the number of visas.

Workers admitted under the visa program would be allowed to change their jobs and seek permanent residency after one year. They would also earn prevailing rates in their industry or the equal of wages paid to American workers.

Employers who offer W-visas will be required to take steps to also recruit American workers, according to labor.

As recently as a few weeks ago, the two sides seemed miles apart on the issue, with the Chamber saying business groups wanted 400,000 visas for a new temporary worker program, and the AFL-CIO saying their upper range was in the tens of thousands.

The temporary worker program has always been one of the primary sticking points in talks between business and labor. Business groups say companies need access to foreign labor to fill positions American workers typically shun. The unions have countered that temporary visas lead to lower wages across-the-board and poor workplace conditions.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka hailed the agreement, but said that the labor movement’s push for comprehensive immigration reform is “just getting started.”

“A new visa program is only a small part of our campaign to build a common sense immigration system,” said Trumka in a statement.

The White House also praised the latest step towards an immigration reform bill.

“The President continues to be encouraged by progress being made by the bipartisan group of Senators,” said White House spokesman Clark Stevens in a statement on Saturday. “We look forward to seeing language once it is introduced, and expect legislation to move forward as soon as possible.”

The bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators have said they hoped to complete their immigration-reform bill, with sources close to talks suggesting the proposal could be unveiled when Congress returns from a two-week spring recess in early April. That timeline now seems more likely, following Saturday’s business-labor breakthrough.

The senators unveiled their framework in January, including a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country, increased border security, and programs to boost both low-skilled and high-skilled workers. Talks have been ongoing to draft legislation.

Vicki Needham and Justin Sink contributed.

This post was last updated at 8:21 p.m.