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Labor and business leaders declare progress in immigration talks

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Labor and business leaders announced Thursday they have agreed in principle to terms that would establish a new guest worker program for foreigners, but they cautioned that details of the program are still being negotiated.

In a joint statement, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue expressed optimism over talks on how to make it easier for companies to hire foreign nationals when Americans are not available.

“We have found common ground in several important areas, and have committed to continue to work together,” the two leaders said.

A bipartisan Senate working group on immigration had asked the two sides to work out an agreement on a guest worker program, a controversial provision that has helped sink previous attempts to overhaul immigration laws.

The Senate group is aiming to develop comprehensive legislative proposals by next month, and President Obama has affirmed the group’s general principles. But Obama’s own legislative proposals — contained in a draft bill that leaked last weekend — does not include a guest-worker provision.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the labor-business joint statement represented “yet another sign of progress, of bipartisanship, and we are encouraged by it.”

Donohue has called for a system that would allow companies to hire more foreigners in low-skilled occupations, such as farming, where there have been shortages of U.S. workers, and to provide foreigners increased mobility to change jobs when necessary.

Trumka has said the labor union would agree only if the number of visas are reduced during times of high unemployment and if foreign workers are provided a path to citizenship to help protect wages and benefits for all workers.

The two sides said they have agreed to three principles. The first is that American workers should have the first crack at all jobs, and the second would provide a new visa that “does not keep all workers in a permanent temporary status, provides labor mobility . . . and that automatically adjusts as the American economy expands and contracts.”

The third principle is a call for a new, quasi-independent federal bureau that would monitor employment statistics and trends to inform Congress about where to set visa caps for foreign workers each year.

A spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is helping lead talks in the Senate, praised the union-business negotiations while also criticizing Obama for not endorsing a guest-worker program.

“It’s good the unions have recognized there must be a workable visa program for lesser-skilled workers as we reform our legal immigration system,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said.

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