By Alexander Bolton - 03/19/13 09:00 AM EDT
Members of the Senate’s Gang of Eight say they are on track to reach a deal on immigration reform by the end of March, despite skepticism and sniping among outside groups.
Sources familiar with closed-door talks between the four Democratic and four Republican senators said members hope to unveil a bill when the Senate returns from a two-week recess in early April.
“I don’t think there’s anything fatal that’s emerged. People are in very much a posture of negotiating in good faith,” said another source close to the Gang of Eight.
Sources close to the talks say Republicans are eager to reach a deal, noting that a post-election report Monday by the Republican National Committee endorsed comprehensive immigration reform and called for outreach to minority groups.
Several immigration reform advocates said they did not expect a deal to be announced before the Senate leaves for recess.
“I think the immigration conclave is going to go on a bit longer given that they’re going into a recess,” said Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. “I don’t think immigration reform is going to give us a white puff of smoke this week.”
Clarissa Martínez, director of immigration and national campaigns at the National Council of La Raza, said the unveiling of legislation could fall later into April to give lawmakers more time to review language after returning to work the week of April 8.
The talks appeared to hit a wall last week when business and labor groups opened fire on each other over disagreements about how to handle the future flow of workers.
Randy Johnson, senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told reporters Friday that the chances of a deal are only 50-50.
“It’s been difficult,” Johnson said. “I think we are at a juncture where certainly the next week and a half will tell the tale, but we are going to continue to soldier on and hope that we get there.”
The AFL-CIO accused the Chamber of “negotiating through the press.”
Some in the business community have questioned whether the AFL-CIO really wants a deal that would set up a guest-worker program to help employers fill jobs when they cannot find enough citizens who are interested in the positions.
“They don’t really want a guest-worker program, that is my reading,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a federation of small-business owners.
“When they talk about how they would constrict and constrain a guest-worker program, it’s clear they’re not interested in a guest-worker program.”
“The thorniest point in the conversation in the Senate is going to be the guest-worker program, as it was six years ago,” he said.
Jeff Hauser, spokesman for the AFL-CIO, said the shared principles agreed to by labor and the Chamber of Commerce intentionally made no reference to a guest-worker program.
“The shared principles envision a new kind of worker visa where no worker is consigned to a temporary status,” he said. “Those were the shared principles that were applauded by [House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor [R-Va.] and [Sen. John] McCain [R-Ariz.].”
McCain is a member of the Senate’s Gang of Eight. The other members are Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
The AFL-CIO wants to set up a federal bureau to track the employment rate and the hiring needs of businesses looking for low-skilled workers. The union says workers brought into the country should not be required to leave after finite periods, and business groups have conceded ground on the issue.
Business groups have accused the AFL-CIO of shifting the goal posts in the talks by recently demanding that occupations covered by the Davis-Bacon Act not be eligible for new visas for low-skilled workers. Davis-Bacon requires that federally funded contractors pay their workers no less than locally prevailing wages.
Business advocates complain this would cut off the construction industry from future access to low-skilled immigrant labor.
The Gang of Eight has made progress on creating a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, according to reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post.
According to reports, the group has tentatively agreed to require illegal immigrants who meet certain qualifications to wait 10 years before obtaining green cards, and another three years before receiving citizenship. This is roughly in line with President Obama’s proposal that illegal immigrants wait eight years for green cards and another five for citizenship.
Sources, however, said the timeline for the path to citizenship will depend on how long it takes to clear the backlog of people who have already applied for legal residency through the proper channels. They expect it to take about 10 years.
But sources familiar with the Gang of Eight discussions say nothing is finalized until the entire deal secures approval.
“It’s not like certain areas have been agreed to and put on the shelf. There’s still work on multiple fronts,” said one source.