AFL-CIO official downplays tensions with Chamber in immigration talks

The AFL-CIO’s point person on immigration reform sounded a more hopeful note on Tuesday about the labor federation’s talks with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Labor and business have been meeting to help flesh out details for a new temporary worker program to be included in a comprehensive immigration reform bill. It’s a thorny issue that helped sink the last major push for immigration reform in 2007.

The negotiations have hit a rough patch in recent weeks, with both sides airing grievances in the press.

But Ana Avendaño, the AFL-CIO’s director of immigration and community action, downplayed the tensions as “miscommunication.”

“I think there has been a lot of miscommunication and the conversations are continuing,” said Avendaño, speaking at a Capitol Hill briefing hosted by the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We are committed to the process, we have been engaged in this process for a long time, and we have been avoiding having to negotiate in the press. ... They are ongoing and we believe that they ultimately will be fruitful.”

The Chamber echoed the AFL-CIO’s positive assessment of the talks.

"We continue to talk and we remain hopeful a deal will be reached," said Blair Latoff Holmes, a Chamber spokeswoman.

In February, the Chamber and the AFL-CIO released a set of principles to guide a new immigrant worker visa program. Since then, senators and their staff have taken the lead on finalizing legislative language for the program.

Avendaño said the talks are now focused on wages for workers in the new visa program and other issues that she wouldn’t specify. Late last week, a dispute over how much workers could earn under the new visa program reportedly stalled progress on the Senate bill.

Under current law, temporary worker programs have differing wage levels. Avendaño was hesitant to discuss details of the negotiations, but said it seemed likely that the new visa program would not be tied to the lowest wage.
“I can say almost for certain that poverty-level wages will not be codified into the statute,” Avendaño said.

The AFL-CIO has pushed to make sure wages for foreign workers under the new visa program would match those of their U.S. counterparts.

“That’s what we are going to keep pushing. We hope that concept is enshrined in law, instead of the notion that the law should reflect the lowest wages possible,” Avendaño said.

The Chamber and the AFL-CIO have also disagreed about the number of visas allowed under the program. But that dispute was reportedly resolved after the two sides reached a compromise figure of 200,000 visas.

Avendaño expressed confidence that senators will introduce their immigration reform bill soon. The AFL-CIO official pushed back against the argument that the dispute over the new visa program will hold up the comprehensive package, saying a pathway to citizenship for immigrants is what is driving the bill.

“Details are not going to hold up this bill,” Avendaño said. “President Obama received the largest share of the Latino vote ever because people were demanding recognition that they are human beings, that they are here, that they be allowed to stay under conditions that are humane. It's the call for legalization that it is driving this whole process.”