The Obama administration has remained on the sidelines as the standoff has worsened, calculating that the president would risk alienating Republican senators crucial to the process. Obama said this week that the issue is “resolvable.”
The guest-worker issue helped derail the last serious attempt at reform in 2007 with assistance from Obama, then a U.S. senator from Illinois. The current attempt at reform is being led by a bipartisan group of eight senators, who are attempting to fashion model legislation for a broad immigration overhaul.
The dispute centers on rules governing the “future flow” of migrants who come to the United States for menial jobs. Republicans, citing business interests, want to give temporary work visas to up to 400,000 foreign workers a year at low wages. But unions and many Democrats, fearing the effect on U.S. workers, want fewer workers and higher pay under the program.
Senators involved insist that they remain on schedule to complete a bill, including a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants, in early April. Obama also expressed confidence this week that the guest-worker disagreement could be solved.
“I don’t agree that it’s threatening to doom the legislation,” Obama said in an interview Wednesday with Telemundo, the Spanish-language TV network. “Labor and businesses may not always agree exactly on how to do this, but this is a resolvable issue.”
But behind the scenes, negotiations over the guest-worker program — and the White House’s refusal to take a position — have soured relations between the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which a month ago joined hands to publicly proclaim agreement on an overall plan.
“Unions say they want a guest-worker program, but their behavior is to the contrary,” said Geoff Burr, the Associated Builders and Contractors’ vice president for federal affairs. “They are insisting on a program that no employer would consider using.”
Union officials think that they have leverage because they have publicly committed to supporting Obama’s push for a path to citizenship — a key issue for Hispanic voters, who overwhelmingly supported the president’s reelection last year.
“This is not what Barack Obama campaigned on,” AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser said. “I don’t understand why people believe business has a seat at the main table after fighting for anti-citizenship candidates in 2012.”
As a senator eyeing union support for a White House bid, Obama voted in favor of an amendment to an immigration bill in 2007 that would have eliminated a new guest-worker program after five years. The amendment, which passed by one vote, has since been cited as a key reason that immigration legislation failed to advance that year.