Labor and business leaders on Thursday said they have made progress toward a pact over how to implement reforms of immigration laws in the workplace, but they stopped short of agreeing on a new guest worker program for foreigners.

2013-01-10T152118Z_01_GAC102_RTRIDSP_3_USA-COMMERCE_image_1024w Thomas Donohue (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

 

In a joint statement, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue expressed optimism over their negotiations and emphasized they are committed to finding a solution that would allow companies to more quickly and easily hire foreigners when Americans are not available.

“Over the last months, representatives of business and labor have been engaged in serious discussions about how to fix the system in a way that benefits both workers and employers, with a focus on lesser-skilled occupations,” the two leaders said. “We have found common ground in several important areas, and have committed to continue to work together and with Members of Congress to enact legislation that will solve our current problems in a lasting manner.”

A bipartisan Senate group that is developing immigration reform legislation had asked the AFL-CIO and Chamber to come up with an agreement over a potential guest worker program, a controversial provision that has helped sink previous attempts to overhaul immigration laws.

Donohue has called for a new guest worker program 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 allow foreign workers 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 umemployment and if foreign workers are provided a path to citizenship to help protect wages and benefits to all workers.

In the joint statement, 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 in a way that still gives American workers a first shot at available jobs, 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.

“We are now in the middle – not the end – of this process, and we pledge to continue to work together and with our allies and our representatives on Capitol Hill to finalize a solution that is in the interest of this country we all love,” Donohue and Trumka said in the statement.

The Senate working group, comprised of four Democrats and four Republicans, is aiming to develop legislative proposals by next month, and President Obama has affirmed his support of the group’s general principles.

Obama's own legislative proposals, contained in a draft bill that the White House says is a backup plan if the Senate effort fails, does not include a guest worker provision. As a senator in 2007, Obama voted in favor of an amendment to a comprehensive immigration bill that would have sunset a guest worker program after five years; that immigration bill ultimately failed in the Senate, and some Republicans cite the amendment as a reason why.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the joint statment represented "yet another sign of progress, of bipartisanship and we are encouraged by it. At the same time, it is an agreement on principles. We remain focused on encouraging the Senate to develop a comprehensive bill."