A labor-business alliance on immigration?

February 14, 2013

The business-labor rift was one of the biggest fault lines of the failed 2007 immigration overhaul. Now, the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO are now trying to link arms to find a new path forward.

Undocumented immigrant Katherine Taberes (R), originally from Colombia, sits next to Giovanni Matos during a watch party of President Obama's speech on immigration on Jan. 29. Obama called for immigration reform and a "pathway to citizenship" for the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Undocumented immigrant Katherine Taberes (R), originally from Colombia, sits next to Giovanni Matos during a watch party of President Obama's speech on immigration on Jan. 29.  (Getty Images)

“We are continuing to talk and remain committed to comprehensive immigration reform,” the Chamber's Randy Johnson and AFL-CIO's Ana Avendano said in a joint statement on Thursday, in response to recent reports that the talks had stalled. A Senate working group had asked them to come up with a plan by Friday, but advocates say a failure to reach that deadline won't mean the talks are doomed.

In contrast to the broader political debate, the biggest sticking point between business and labor is actually over legal, not illegal, immigration. Business wants a major new guest-worker program and additional visas for high-skilled workers, while labor worries that such changes could allow companies to rely on cheap foreign labor instead of native-born workers.

This was one of the issues that contributed to the breakdown of the 2007 negotiations in the Senate, dividing Democrats as well as Republicans. At the time, for instance, then-Sen. Obama supported an amendment to phase out a large new proposed guest-worker programs after five years.

In reality, guest-worker programs have had a spotty track record, as the willingness to adhere to labor standards has been weak and the some beneficiaries have abused the system to get into the United States permanently, as my colleague Dylan has explained. But if comprehensive immigration reform is to pass, it's highly likely that it will contain some version of a guest-worker program, which is in both the Senate Gang of Eight's framework and a 2011 immigration reform from the White House.

Business wants a demand-driven guest-worker program to give companies unfettered access to certain kinds of workers: "low-skilled seasonal employees, high-tech computer scientists, or agricultural workers," as the Christian Science Monitor explains.

By contrast, the AFL-CIO and other labor unions have supported the creation of a new, independent commission envisioned by former Carter Labor Secretary Ray Marshall that would "measure labor shortages and recommend the numbers and characteristics of employment-based temporary and permanent immigrants to fill those shortages." AFL-CIO's Richard Trumka has called the approach "a data-driven system that is actually driven by needs and not by aspirations of employers."

It's unclear where the middle-ground is. The business community is highly wary about empowering unelected bureaucrats to regulate finance and health care, while labor will be loath to let companies themselves call the shots on visas. But they may be able to find another mechanism to use both business employment demands and macroeconomic indicators to set the levels of legal immigration.

Policy experts also have laid out some other ways to resolve some of the downsides to a guest worker program: Georgetown professor Harry Holzer, a former Clinton official, has suggested that guest-workers be able to switch jobs after a certain period of time, while retaining the protections for native-born workers, to prevent labor abuses and a race to bottom for wages. Holzer also recommends that guest-workers be given a pathway to obtaining permanent resident and ultimately citizenship, suggesting that the visas be considered "provisional" rather than "temporary."

If the Chamber and the AFL-CIO are ultimately able to come to an agreement on guest workers, it will be an important stepping stone for passing a comprehensive bill. But it won't guarantee that a deal will ultimately get made, as business (and labor's) stamp of approval is unlikely to translate directly into more votes for a comprehensive bill.

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Ezra Klein | February 14, 2013