- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2013

Big Business and Big Labor cleared a big hurdle Thursday, as the Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO agreed in principle on a plan to allow “lesser skilled” immigrants to work in the U.S. legally, a key sticking point for a final deal on overhauling the nation’s immigration laws.

The two groups, which often are at odds on immigration issues, released their “shared principles” Thursday after weeks of private negotiations, though they emphasized it is a work in progress.

“The fact that business and labor can come together to negotiate in good faith over contentious issues should be a signal to Congress and the American people that support for immigration reform is widespread and growing, and is important to our economy and our society,” Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in joint statement.

“This is an urgent national priority and Congress should act accordingly,” the men said.

The plan includes a path to let businesses more easily hire foreigners when American workers aren’t available. A central feature would be a work visa program “that does not keep all [foreign] 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 groups also suggest the creation of a politically independent federal professional bureau — similar to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — that would use “real-world data” about labor markets and demographics to help Congress address changes and shortages in the labor force.

The groups add that labor and business are committed to finding better ways to inform American workers when lesser-skilled jobs become open.

“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,” Mr. Donohue and Mr. Trumka said.

Business and labor often have been adversaries on immigration reform, with business groups pushing for an expanded workforce and labor groups pressing for protections for American workers. But supporters of the joint effort hope it will help jump-start a move toward immigration legislation on Capitol Hill, where the issue has lain largely dormant since an effort backed by President George W. Bush failed in 2007.

“While the devil will be in the details in terms of fleshing these principles out, our staffs have had very productive discussions with both sides this week,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, who, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, brought the groups together. “We are very hopeful that an agreement can be reached on a specific proposal in the next few weeks.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney joined in the applause, calling it “another sign of progress, of bipartisanship, and we are encouraged by it.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, called the group’s effort “a positive step on immigration reform.”

“Their goal of protecting American workers and ensuring we have the workforce we need to grow the economy and remain globally competitive is one I share,” Mr. Cantor said. “While we may not agree on every aspect, it is encouraging that two groups often on opposite sides of the aisle are serious about putting politics aside and finding solutions.”

But not everyone on Capitol Hill was pleased with the plan, as Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, called it “inconsistent and even contradictory.”

“Such a visa program is certain to take jobs from American workers and depress wages,” Mr. Sessions said in a statement. “The chamber has been a positive force on many issues. This is not one of them.”

• Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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