AFL-CIO and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Reach Immigration Accord

Though much of the immigration debate has centered on issues like STEM visa reform and what to do about 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living here, legal immigration of low-skilled workers remains a significant concern for businesses, organized labor, and many politicians on Capitol Hill. For the past several months, representatives of the AFL-CIO and U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been hashing out an agreement-in-principle on this key question: how to handle low-skilled temporary foreign workers under the CIR proposals now taking shape on Capitol Hill.

On February 21, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, Thomas J. Donohue, and AFL-CIO President, Richard Trumka, released a Joint Statement of Shared Principles to guide legislation in this area. [See Joint Statement of Shared Principles, 12.Feb.2013.] At the outset, the parties stipulated that the current immigration system is broken, and that: “What is needed is the creation of a professional bureau in a federal executive agency to inform Congress and the public about these issues together with a system that provides for lesser-skilled visas that respond to employers’ needs while protecting the wages and working conditions of lesser-skilled workers – foreign or domestic.”

To that end, the AFL-CIO and U.S. Chamber agreed, three main principles should guide Congress as it grapples with lesser-skilled immigration:

  • “First, American workers should have first crack at available jobs.” Both sides agree that information on job openings in lesser-skilled occupations should be shared more broadly.
  • “Second, there are instances – even during tough economic times – when employers are not able to fill job openings with American workers.” Congress should create “a new kind of worker visa program that does not keep all workers in a permanent temporary status, provides labor mobility in a way that still gives American workers a first shot at available jobs, and that automatically adjusts as the American economy expands and contracts.”
  • “Third, we need to fix the system so that it is much more transparent, which requires that we build a base of knowledge using real-world data about labor markets and demographics.” They ask Congress to establish an independent professional bureau – like the Bureau of Labor Statistics – to provide objective, apolitical information on labor market demands, information that could be used to set visa levels.

The agreement clears the way for Congressional negotiators to start fleshing out the details of a temporary worker visa program, according to the Los Angeles Times. [See Business, Labor Leaders Reach Compromise on Immigration Reform, by Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times, 21.Feb.2013.] The agreement is nothing short of historic; as the Times notes, the issue of temporary guest workers “was a key factor in scuttling the last effort to reform the nation’s immigration laws, under President George W. Bush in 2007.” Obviously, it doesn’t guarantee passage of CIR this time around, but it does remove a major hurdle.

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