A bipartisan deal on immigration is at risk of stalling because of a worsening dispute over a new guest-worker program, exposing fault lines between crucial interest groups and threatening to delay the unveiling of a Senate bill early next month.
The impasse has prompted a bitter round of name-calling between labor and business groups, both of whom accuse the other of imperiling comprehensive immigration reform.
As the standoff has deteriorated, the Obama administration has remained on the sidelines and declined to intervene — a calculated decision that the president’s influence would risk alienating Republican senators crucial to the process.
The dispute over a program for foreign workers has emerged as perhaps the most serious obstacle to a final deal from a bipartisan group of eight senators, who are attempting to fashion model legislation for broad immigration reform. The same issue helped derail the last serious attempt at reform in 2007 with help from Obama, then a U.S. senator from Illinois.
The current talks center on rules governing the “future flow” of migrants who come to the United States for low-paying, menial jobs. Republicans, citing business interests, want to give temporary work visas to up to 400,000 foreign workers a year, mostly at minimum wages. But unions and many Democrats, fearing the impact on American workers, want fewer workers and higher pay under the program.
Senators involved in the immigration talks insist they remain on schedule to complete a bill, including a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants, in early April. Obama also expressed confidence this week that the guest-workers disagreement could be solved.
“I don’t agree that it’s threatening to doom the legislation,” Obama said in an interview Wednesday with Telemundo, the Spanish-language TV network. “Labor and businesses may not always agree exactly on how to do this, but this is a resolvable issue.”
But behind the scenes, negotiations over the guest-worker program — and the White House’s refusal to take a position — have soured relations between the AFL-CIO and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which only a month ago joined hands to publicly proclaim agreement on an overall plan.
“Unions say they want a guest-worker program, but their behavior is to the contrary,” said Geoff Burr, vice president for federal affairs for the Associated Builders and Contractors. “They are insisting on a program that no employer would consider using.”
Union officials believe they have leverage because they have publicly committed to supporting Obama’s push for a path to citizenship, a key issue for Latino voters who overwhelmingly supported the president’s reelection last year.
“This is not what Barack Obama campaigned on,” AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser said. “I don’t understand why people believe business has a seat at the main table after fighting for anti-citizenship candidates in 2012.”
As a senator eyeing union support for a White House bid, Obama voted in favor of an amendment to an immigration bill in 2007 that would have eliminated a new guest-worker program after five years. The amendment, which passed by one vote, has since been cited as a key reason that immigration legislation failed to advance that year.
Obama made no mention of a guest-worker program in the immigration principles he laid out in a speech in Las Vegas two months ago. The omission was notable considering the bipartisan Senate group had included the idea in its own principles that same week.
Instead, the White House has deferred to the Senate group — which includes four Democrats and four Republicans — to work out an agreement between the Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO.
“If it’s included in line with the other principles that the president has rolled out in terms of what should be included in comprehensive immigration reform, that’s certainly something that we could support,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday of a guest-worker program. “But we’re going to reserve judgment on what that looks like until it’s actually produced.”
Administration officials say privately that the Senate group asked the White House to give the lawmakers “space” to take the lead in finding common ground between labor and business. Obama also is mindful of causing a political firestorm if he is seen trying to big-foot the efforts of the senators, potentially angering the Republican members, officials said.
But Obama has also vowed to step in with his own legislative proposals if the Senate is unable to come to an agreement on a bill. The White House announced this week that the president will travel to Mexico and Costa Rica in early May to highlight cultural and economic ties.
One Republican Senate aide involved in the talks said the White House’s absence from negotiations has been helped ensure that the negotiations do not become “overly politicized.”
But, the GOP aide added: “Everyone understands this is a critical piece for future flow. It’s central. There’s been a good faith effort to get to a result, but the White House has not been involved. Eventually, the White House will have to make a choice.”
The senators involved maintain that the negotiations continue to move forward. Four members of the working group inspected border-control measures in Arizona on Wednesday, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said after that the group is “90 percent” complete on the legislation.
“There are a few little problems to work on,” he said. “We’ve been on the phone all day working with” the other members.
The guest-worker program is not the only contentious area of the Senate legislation. The bill is likely to include a large increase in visas for high-tech workers and the elimination of some categories of family visas, two areas that have provoked strong push back from advocates who fear it could make it harder for families to be reunited while favoring employment-based migration.
The guest-worker dispute broke into view last week when Chamber of Commerce officials went public with their concerns over the process, leading to angry responses from AFL-CIO officials.
The chamber has called for 400,000 new visas for guest workers, along with the ability for the workers to switch jobs once they are in the United States. Union officials countered with an offer of 10,000 visas and say the foreign workers should be allowed to pursue citizenship once they have entered the country.
The senators have reportedly agreed to cap the program at 200,000 visas per year, starting at a much lower figure and moving up as the economy improves.
The biggest sticking point, however, has been wages. The chamber wants to pay the foreigners the equivalent of minimum wages of American workers, and the unions are holding out for a higher pay scale based on median wages of each industry.
Business leaders contend that the AFL-CIO — and, by association, the White House — are not negotiating in good faith.
“The president is obviously close to unions on this issue. The constituencies they’re trying to keep happy with immigration reform do not care about this piece of it,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a federation of small-business owners that supports immigration reform. “They want to keep Latino voters happy, keep unions happy — and, dare say it, who cares about the economy?”
Jacoby said that based on last year’s election results, the White House is calculating that “Republicans so badly need to get on the right side of history with Latino voters, they will throw business to the wolves and throw future immigrants under the bus.”
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