Sharp Divide Over Visas, Temporary Workers Dims Outlook For Reform Bill This Year

Sharp Divide Over Visas, Temp Workers Dims Outlook For Reform Bill This Year

By Chris Strohm and Dan Friedman
The Congress Daily (Washington, DC), June 11, 2009 [Subscription]

Business and labor groups have launched aggressive lobbying efforts in Congress to promote widely divergent views on how to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, raising fresh doubts that lawmakers can come to an agreement this year on immigration reform legislation.

The activity comes only days before President Obama hosts a highly anticipated summit with congressional leaders on Wednesday to discuss the prospects for immigration reform legislation.

Obama has vowed to make comprehensive reform legislation a priority for 2009, and some key lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Reid, have claimed a bill can be passed this year.

But powerhouse groups such as the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are at odds over a proposal to create an independent commission that would establish limits for work visas and determine the flow of temporary workers into the United States.

The groups are making their respective cases in behind-the-scenes meetings with key lawmakers and aides who are expected to play a central role in drafting a comprehensive immigration bill.

Groups seeking changes in immigration laws agreed to support the idea of creating an independent commission as a way to bring the AFL-CIO on board with their cause. The labor group did not support a sweeping immigration reform bill that Congress took up in 2007, but ultimately failed to pass.

But the move has alienated the business community — a key constituency that helped to build bipartisan support for the 2007 bill.

The primary sticking point is that labor groups do not support the creation of a temporary guest-worker program.

The U.S. Chamber and other business groups fear the commission will be dominated by labor interests and, therefore, will not allow a guest-worker program to be created. They fear that the commission will try to kill existing work visa programs, such as those for specialty and seasonal workers.

'We are worried that if an independent commission is created it will prevent the creation of a future flow program for essential workers and try to kill programs like H-1B and H-2B,' said Angelo Amador, the Chamber's director of immigration policy.

Amador said he does not believe the chances of passing an immigration bill this year are good.

Key Senate Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said they will oppose any immigration reform effort if a guest-worker program is left out.

'I cannot support any proposal that does not contain comprehensive immigration reform [and] a temporary worker program part of it,' said McCain, who was instrumental in crafting the 2007 bill. 'The labor [groups feel] they have won the election and they [feel] they have great control over' the process, he added.

McCain has not been invited to the White House to discuss immigration, his spokeswoman said.

Business groups plan to discuss the issue in a meeting Friday with key aides to Senate Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Schumer is holding separate hearings on key pieces of a comprehensive bill and plans to complete draft bill language by this fall, an aide said.

Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO is making its rounds in Congress to drum up support for the commission.

'We've been having meetings with members of relative committees and leadership to discuss what we support,' said Sonia Ramirez, the labor group's legislative representative.

She disputed that the AFL-CIO wants to kill existing work-visa programs.

'We would support immediate reform of existing programs and then we would empower the commission to come up with methodology and criteria to inform how we should be inviting workers in the future and how many,' she said.

When asked how lawmakers have reacted so far to the commission idea, she said: 'It's a new concept, so I think there are a lot of questions on how to achieve the goals that we have in mind.'

She added: 'No one has expressed outright opposition to the idea.'

Several key Democrats are still evaluating the proposal.

House Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., 'hasn't ruled out a commission, but the problem is in the details,' her spokesman said. 'She's taking meetings with anyone who wants to meet with her.'

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, whose support will be essential to an immigration bill, gave virtually identical answers when asked for comment.

The caucus chairwoman, Rep. Nydia Velzquez, D-N.Y., and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said they 'look forward' to hearing from various groups, 'including the labor unions who have voiced their active support for achieving comprehensive immigration reform this year.'