A key senator said Friday that labor and business leaders are drawing close to settling an impasse over a new work visa program for foreigners that is considered crucial to an immigration reform bill that lawmakers hope to unveil next month.
“We are very close, closer than we have ever been, and we are very optimistic, but there are still a few issues remaining,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.
Schumer’s office declined to provide details, but Senate aides involved in the talks said that lawmakers in the negotiations between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO hoped to have an agreement in principle by the end of the day. Schumer is a member of a bipartisan group of eight senators that is developing legislation expected to serve as a template for a potential deal between Congress and the White House.
The dispute has centered on a guest worker program that would allow foreigners to enter the country in search of low-paying jobs. The Chamber has sought more visas and greater flexibility to hire such workers in jobs where American workers are in short supply, but the AFL-CIO has objected because of concerns that such a program could drag down wages and benefits for Americans.
Senators are developing a plan to cap the program at 200,000 visas per year, while starting at a far lower number of between 20,000 and 40,000, people familiar with the deal have said. The workers would be allowed to change jobs once they’ve arrived in the country, and they would be allowed to pursue a path to citizenship if they so desire.
The bigger sticking point has been wages, with the Chamber wanting to pay prevailing wages equivalent to Americans' based on a formula that takes into accountwages paid by the empoyer to similarly situated U.S. workers as well as regional and industry scales. But the unions want a higher pay scale based on the median wages of each industry.
Small businesses also have asked for a special exception from paying higher wages, according to one person familiar with the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
Despite Friday's apparent optimism, union and business leaders have proclaimed previously that they have been in harmony. The sides released a joint statement of shared principles in February, but talks broke down late last week over the details of the guest worker program. That forced the eight senators involved in the bipartisan talks to miss a self-imposed deadline of March 22 to have a final agreement on a comprehensive immigration bill that is expected to feature a path to citizenship for the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants.