Chamber, union leaders mull alliance to press for immigration reform

Washington’s most powerful business lobby and prominent union leaders are discussing a joint push on immigration reform this year.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is in discussions with the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) about shared principles for reforming the immigration system, officials involved with the talks told The Hill.

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“The cause of the undocumented is our cause, and the Chamber can be a powerful ally in expanding citizenship to all working people in the United States,” said Ana Avendano, the AFL-CIO’s director of immigration and community action.

Advocates for immigration reform say a team-up between business and labor would be a blockbuster development that could lend momentum to their cause.

“It bodes very well for the prospects for immigration reform in 2013,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “When you have [Chamber President] Tom Donohue and [AFL-CIO chief] Richard Trumka saying nice things about each other and immigration reform, it gives you a sense that something might happen after all.”

Two of the driving forces behind the collaboration are Donohue and Trumka, who seem to have forged a genuine friendship despite being on opposite ends of the political spectrum. 

“I’m working personally with Mr. Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, on a number of issues that we can come to some accommodation,” Donohue said last week to reporters when asked about immigration reform. He said those talks “should speed the process.” Donohue and Trumka joined up in 2011 for a lobbying push on infrastructure spending and often grab lunch together at the Hay-Adams hotel and the Equinox restaurant in Washington. 

Aides to both leaders recalled friendly banter between Donohue and Trumka in the green room before a joint appearance in 2011 on ABC’s “This Week.” Trumka even made a rare visit to the Chamber to speak with the group’s board of directors.

“They go to the neighborhood haunts. We are right around the corner from each other,” said Tom Collamore, the Chamber’s senior vice president of communications and strategy. “When they have their periodic lunches, I think they go through the whole laundry list of issues. Immigration has always been lurking out there, waiting for its appropriate moment in the cycle.”

The Chamber is also reaching out to the SEIU, which pushed immigration reform hard during the 2012 campaign. Eliseo Medina, SEIU’s secretary-treasurer, said he has had serious discussions with the business lobby about what it will take to get legislation through the new Congress.

“What I’m seeing with the Chamber is they have a new energy and have demonstrated much more commitment to this issue than before,” Medina said. “Our conservations with the Chamber have not only been about the substance of a bill, but also what action it would take for us to work together to get it passed.” 

Talks about an immigration proposal are occurring at the staff level at the Chamber and the AFL-CIO. One topic being debated is how best to treat temporary-worker programs, an issue that divided labor during the last attempt at immigration reform, in 2007. 

Both sides want to improve temporary-worker programs. Business wants more access to labor outside the country for jobs that they can’t find U.S. workers to fill. Unions, however, have worried that such programs can lead to low wages and poor working conditions for immigrant workers.

“We are looking to come together on joint principles for a depoliticized approach to the labor market in which impartial experts, rather than politicians, determine the future flow of workers,” Avendano said.

Randy Johnson, the Chamber’s senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits, has been involved in the talks with both the AFL-CIO and SEIU about immigration reform.

“One of the issues under discussion is the expanded number of work visas. We are in discussions with the unions about that,” Johnson said.

Unions have become much more aggressive on immigration in recent years, reflecting the growing diversity of their membership. Businesses have a strong interest in seeing the system reformed as well, often struggling to fill seasonal and high-skilled positions.

“Business and labor are feeling a different motivation to reach a compromise. For labor, it’s a diversifying membership. For business, it’s an increasingly agitated membership,” Noorani said. “Both memberships are bearing the brunt of massive immigration enforcement.” 

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The massive turnout of Latino voters in the 2012 election is also a powerful motivator on Capitol Hill, particularly on the Republican side of the aisle.

“In the past, this issue had been utilized by politicians to motivate their bases by demonizing immigrants,” Medina said. “The Nov. 6 election turned that on its head. Instead of that being a winner for them, it became a loser.”

Johnson, with the Chamber, said he hopes labor and business can coalesce behind one bill as lawmakers consider immigration reform.

“In this case, it would be obviously better if we were unified behind one piece of legislation,” Johnson said. “I hope we will be able to support legislation that’s introduced in the Senate, and possibly even the House.”