Ask top GOP or Democratic lawmakers what their biggest fear is for immigration reform, and they’ll likely describe an apocalyptic war between labor and big business over guest workers. With negotiations between the two interest groups slow and rumors trickling out of such a scenario emerging, leaders from both sides moved Thursday to tamp down rumors that their talks had collapsed.
“We are continuing to talk and remain committed to comprehensive immigration reform,” Randy Johnson, the Chamber of Commerce’s point man on immigration, and Ana Avendano, who holds the equivalent position with the AFL-CIO, said in a joint statement.
On Wednesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said in a hearing on immigration that “if I had to bet where this thing would run into a real roadblock” it is a guest worker program. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who along with Graham is part of the bipartisan Senate group working on a bill, identified future immigration as one of the most fraught topics as well and blamed squabbles between labor and business for killing a 2007 comprehensive bill.
Both the Senate’s and White House’s immigration frameworks left the issue of how to deal with future immigrant workers in low-skill jobs fairly vague, giving the SEIU, AFL-CIO, and Chamber of Commerce, room to work out a solution that might win over populist Democrats and business-friendly Republicans alike. Graham and Schumer have personally encouraged their talks.
Labor unions are concerned that a guest worker program that brings in immigrants on a temporary basis to perform low-paying jobs could be a vehicle for businesses to undercut organizing efforts among workers and depress wages and benefits across whole industries. But business groups say they need a steady supply of workers to do low-paying jobs Americans won’t take at any price and that overly restrictive limits on their ability to do so will undercut their competitiveness and lead to further illegal immigration. Sources claiming to be familiar with their talks grumbled to Politico on Wednesday that the gulf is looking too wide to breach, prompting the next day’s joint reassurances from the AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce.
The SEIU and AFL-CIO have proposed creating a commission of experts who would identify genuine labor shortages and only then allow limited numbers of immigrant workers. Business leaders are afraid it would be too slow to react to changes in the marketplace, detecting hiring crises only after it became too late to raise quotas on incoming workers or after demand for more of a product or service had already passed.
In an interview with TPM on Monday, Avendano said a commission was not an ironclad demand (she said that, like “guest workers,” too many “bad feelings” were attached to the phrase), but that negotiations with the Chamber of Commerce were focused on determining which metrics should be used to determine labor needs.
“To the extent that people hear us saying we want to create this new independent agency that’s going to be on K Street, that’s not what we’re talking about,” she said. “We’re really talking about how do we create a system that’s really based on data flows. Whether it’s an independent commission like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or something else, we haven’t gotten to that point yet.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.