Sen. Lindsey Graham walked out of his immigration meeting with President Obama last week and said the president needs to pressure labor unions to accept a temporary-worker program as part of any bill.
Less than a day later, the AFL-CIO said that was a no-go.
Among all the other potential pitfalls, the divide over how to handle the future flow of foreign workers, which has bedeviled the immigration issue for years, once again threatens to halt any progress on immigration reform.
“By taking this position, the AFL-CIO ends any realistic chance of legislation this year,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President Randel K. Johnson said this weekend, only deepening the rift between businesses and unions.
Businesses say they need to make sure they can get access to foreign workers because there are jobs Americans won’t take. But labor unions fear such a program would depress wages for American workers, and in the current economy, with unemployment hovering at 10 percent, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said a new temporary-worker program “would be political suicide.”
It’s such a bitter dispute that those who are fighting against an immigration bill say they can sit back and watch the two sides implode while fighting each other.
“Can you feel my smile? It’s great not to be needed,” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations at NumbersUSA, which rallied opponents to flood senators’ offices with calls and faxes during the 2006 and 2007 immigration-reform debates.
Josh Bernstein, director of immigration for the Service Employees International Union, which is heavily involved in negotiations, said he doesn’t read too much into the back-and-forth between the AFL-CIO and the Chamber, saying the business group overreacted to one part of a statement.
He has sat in on many of the key immigration conversations, and said he’s encouraged.
“The vast majority of those in labor and the vast majority of those in business really desire to come up with a solution, a comprehensive solution, for immigration reform, because it’s good for the economy, and that’s good for all of us,” he said.
In recent weeks, the White House, lawmakers and immigrant rights activists have raised hopes that the Senate may once again tackle the issue this year. Mr. Graham, South Carolina Republican, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, are working on writing a bill to legalize illegal immigrants and boost enforcement.
Adding to the pressure, tens of thousands of immigrant rights activists are scheduled to come to Washington on Sunday to rally for a bill.
The temporary-worker program is not the only deal-breaker. Mr. Graham said. Mr. Obama must prove the administration is already taking steps on enforcement, and said the entire immigration debate could come to a halt if Democrats push a health care bill through Congress using the budget process to avoid a Senate filibuster.
“For more than a year, health care has sucked most of the energy out of the room. Using reconciliation to push health care through will make it much harder for Congress to come together on a topic as important as immigration,” Mr. Graham said.
In his meeting with Mr. Obama on Thursday, Mr. Graham specifically called on the White House “to become engaged with the unions on the creation of a temporary-worker program which meets the needs of business community.”