Long-simmering tensions between labor and business over importing new workers are spilling out in the open, raising fears that an impasse between two of the biggest stakeholders in the immigration debate could scuttle comprehensive immigration reform.
The tone of what had been mostly quiet and behind-the-scenes talks between the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce has been heating up in recent days as Republicans and business lobbyists have gone out of their way to preemptively blame unions for killing a bill. It’s not clear whether the public tiff is part of tough final negotiations or a sign that talks are deteriorating — or perhaps both.
The union federation and the chamber have been in talks for months, with the blessing of a bipartisan group of senators working on immigration reform, but so far has only produced a barebones set of principles that would create a new class of immigrant workers and a new federal agency to monitor employment trends. Senators in the so-called “Gang of 8” have complained about the two sides’ progress, which could make plans to release legislation before early next month more difficult.
Randy Johnson, a senior vice president of the Chamber of Commerce who is tasked with handling immigration issues, took the dispute public on Friday, venting to reporters that business’ demand of 400,000 new guest worker visas was met with a number from labor well below 100,000. He put the chances of a deal at just 50-50.
But a source close to the negotiations said the chamber was exaggerating the dispute and that they had “reached agreement on the size, scope, and timing of the program, how the numbers fluctuate, how workers change jobs — everything except for wages.” Negotiators have also agreed to allow temporary workers to eventually obtain green cards, another key demand from labor.
“The only thing that’s remaining here is that the business community wants to set wage rates for the new visa holders that are below the federal poverty line,” Tom Snyder, campaign manager for immigration at the AFL-CIO, told TPM. “We don’t accept that.”
According to a source close to the business side of negotiations, industry groups are stuck on how much employers should have to pay over market rates in order to hire immigrants and at what point those requirements would kick in. Under the plan under discussion, employers who imported workers would have to pay a premium on standard wages paid to low skilled workers in occupations typically filled by immigrants. That premium, which would come from a mix of government fees and wage requirements, would range from around 20 percent up to an average as high as 60-70 percent, rising or falling based on factors like unemployment rates, the type of job, and whether employers had exceeded agreed-upon visa caps.
Underscoring the increased intensity of talks is the surprising progress lawmakers have made in recent days on other aspects of immigration reform. Republicans of all stripes are signaling that they could accept a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a huge hurdle that helped wipe out previous attempts at reform. The GOP’s surprising tack to the center is upping the pressure on labor and business to work out a plan for future immigration — or risk being saddled with the blame if reform dies again.
Republicans working on immigration legislation believe that they’ve greatly increased their leverage on guest workers in recent weeks by proving they can recruit tea party conservatives like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to the reform cause and keep talk radio relatively quiet.
“What I’ve told conservatives is that we need to be open-minded about what we do with the 11 million so we can get what we want on border security, on guest worker programs,” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID), who is negotiating a bipartisan House bill, told reporters on Wednesday.
On the other side, labor is hoping the GOP’s increasing fear of provoking Latino voters, as evidenced by the RNC’s dire new report on minority outreach, will dissuade them from risking blame for a bill’s failure by holding out.
“We’re pretty confident it wasn’t busines that brought those Republicans on board … but the reality that the future of the GOP depends on a new demographic,” Ana Avendano, director of immigration and community action at the AFL-CIO told TPM. “We’ve seen no evidence that the Chamber has actually moved a single politician in the right way. What we heard is they’ve pulled McCain and Graham back from reaching a deal.”
Avendano floated the possibility that Congress might pass a bill without a temporary worker component at all if talks break down, a scenario that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and other Republicans working on a bill have said would be a deal breaker.
The question now is whether the recent spate of leaks represents both sides trying to score their last points because they know they’ll have to back a final bill soon — or if legislation is actually in serious danger.
“I think, frankly, this might be bluster [from business] before the bill and I’m quite confident this is going to be worked out,” Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-reform America’s Voice Education Fund, told TPM.
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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.