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.”
Nick Shapiro, a White House spokesman, said they have not committed to a solution yet.
“The administration is talking to a wide range of stakeholders on all of the issues in this debate, including the AFL-CIO. There are a number of creative ideas on the table for ways to deal with the future flow of migrants, and we remain open to a variety of options as legislation takes shape,” he said.
Future workers have been a sticking point for years.
In 2006, the bill the Senate debated allowed hundreds of thousands of new workers in each year, and put them on a path to citizenship — violating one of President George W. Bush’s key demands that any future workers be temporary. That 2006 bill passed the Senate, but was never taken up by the House.
A year later, when the issue came back to the Senate, a key fight was over how many temporary workers would be let in. The original bill called for 400,000 temporary workers a year, but an amendment passed that slashed that number in half. The 2007 bill failed when a bipartisan majority of senators joined a filibuster.
This year, unions have floated the idea of having a commission to set the level of future workers. But that could be a problem for the Chamber, which says a commission cannot be in charge of the numbers of workers.
“The hardest piece to figure out is future visas,” said Tamar Jacoby, president and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA, a group of companies pushing for an immigration bill.
“I think there’s a recognition we need workers in a variety of fields, I would argue at the top and bottom of the economy. The question is how do you make sure employers try to hire Americans first and that you have a flexible flow.”
Ms. Jacoby said there should be ways to bridge the gap by looking for a solution that isn’t one-size-fits-all. One approach would be to allow workers who want to come, toil and return home to do so. Those workers that want to stay could be evaluated based on their work history.
Ms. Jenks, who is fighting against any bill, said there’s is a reason businesses and unions might find an agreement: They know they have a limited window to get something done. She said that means there’s incentive for both sides to give a little and to be open to a deal that gives them each a half-victory.
“This fight has been ongoing, and let’s face it, neither side is in this on principle; they’re in it for greed,” she said.