Uneasy Alliance Over Legalizing Workers

An aggressive policy against undocumented workers in Hazelton, Pa., pushed out many illegal workers and left staffing shortages. Business and labor groups are lobbying Congress for a new immigration bill.
An aggressive policy against undocumented workers in Hazelton, Pa., pushed out many illegal workers and left staffing shortages. Business and labor groups are lobbying Congress for a new immigration bill. (By Spencer Platt -- Getty Images)
By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Reflecting the importance of immigrant workers to the U.S. economy, business and labor groups are fighting to shape a bill overhauling immigration law that could be introduced as early as this week.

Although they all want Congress to legalize the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants, they differ on how it should be done. The result is a tug of war that is pulling negotiations in various directions as legislators prepare to restart debate on comprehensive immigration legislation. Advocates ranging from flower wholesalers to computer programmers from India are bombarding legislators on the run-up to the bill's introduction, hoping their proposals will be included.

Reps. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) are hashing out a bill and plan to introduce it this week or next, a Gutierrez aide said. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has said he plans to put forward legislation passed last year by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Both houses considered immigration proposals last year but failed to reach a compromise and efforts for a wide-ranging overhaul died.

Proponents of legalization have a hodge-podge of requests, resulting in a slew of competing messages along from a growing number of immigration-related business coalitions.

Five human resources organizations, including the Society for Human Resource Management and the American Council on International Personnel, are asking Congress to reject an expansion of the Department of Homeland Security's pilot employee verification program which has had inconsistent results.

A coalition of business groups with members as varied as the National Restaurant Association and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America are lobbying for an increase in both temporary visas and green cards for immigrants.

Microsoft, Intel and other tech companies want the right to bring as many highly skilled immigrants to the United States as the market will support.

The requests have little in common and each contingent is striving to make its voice loudest.

A human resources group has sent a few hundred people to Capitol Hill to lobby their representatives, telling them that an improved process for verifying workers' documentation "is the lynchpin on which any successful immigration reform has to work," said Susan Meisinger, president of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Aman Kapoor, who founded a grass-roots group of mostly computer programmers from India and China who hold temporary H-1B visas for skilled workers, has traveled to Washington from his home in Tallahassee every two weeks for the past several months to push his message on Capitol Hill.

"It will take me almost 20 years to become a citizen," he said last week before meeting with Patton Boggs, the lobbying firm that he and other H-1B holders hired to advocate for provisions to help alleviate the green card backlog.

Despite the varying agendas, most advocates of immigration legislation are basically aligned. If one group gets what it wants, the others won't be harmed. A more serious rift has formed between two of the most powerful backers of an overhaul, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The groups are deeply divided over a guest-worker program. The AFL-CIO, the nation's largest coalition of labor unions, opposes such programs but wants undocumented workers to be legalized. That would give illegal immigrants the right to organize and join unions. The union federation wants any immigrant worker program to include provisions of the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act, a law requiring federal contractors to pay a prevailing local wage.

The chamber badly wants the ability to legalize undocumented workers and free employers of the liability and scrutiny that the growing illegal workforce has brought to business. But the group will withdraw its support and lobby against the bill if the prevailing wage requirement is included, saying that it would drastically increase costs.

"Organized labor is risking flushing down the toilet the future of 10 million undocumented workers on the altar of this Davis-Bacon expansion," said Randel Johnson, a vice president at the Chamber of Commerce. "They are risking the entire bill."

Compromise is the only solution, said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, which has united groups that support legalizing undocumented immigrants.

"All of them ultimately have to ride the same big train," Kelley said.

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