Leading business and union groups announced agreement Thursday on principles to guide talks on immigration legislation, but they failed to resolve some of their most contentious disputes.
The groups had hoped to negotiate a united position on rules governing the future entry into the U.S. of low-skilled workers—one of many issues that lawmakers and outside groups are trying to work through as Congress considers a broad overhaul of immigration laws.
The lack of agreement between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO means that senators attempting to write an immigration bill will have to find a compromise on their own on the flow of foreign workers into the country. The lawmakers had hoped for a unified recommendation from the chamber and the labor organization.
A labor official said the groups issued their joint principles now because of pressure from the bipartisan Senate group that is working to finish legislation by next month.
While many details are left open, the joint statement was significant in that it put the AFL-CIO on record as favoring a program to admit future low-skilled workers, something labor had opposed in the past. The joint statement also included references to protections for workers both in the U.S. and abroad, a priority for unions.
The groups had been talking for months in hopes of coming to a united position on how to legally admit immigrants to fill jobs at hotel, janitorial, meatpacking and other companies that use low-skilled employees.
The joint statement of principles calls for a system that "provides for lesser-skilled visas that respond to employers' needs while protecting the wages and working conditions of lesser-skilled workers—foreign or domestic."
One of the most contentious issues has been how to set the number of workers that may be admitted in the future, with business wanting liberal rules and labor wanting limits. Labor was pushing for a commission to set the figure, something the chamber argued wouldn't be effective.
The parties did agree that a bureau should be established inside a federal agency to inform Congress, but they didn't say whether it should have power to set immigration quotas.
The business and labor groups both hold considerable clout in Congress, and proponents of an immigration overhaul had hoped that any possible objections to details in this portion of the legislation—for instance, immigrant quotas—could be worked out in advance. Both sides said Thursday they were committed to working to advance the legislation but made few specific recommendations.
Other unresolved questions include how employers will prove they tried to recruit Americans before hiring from abroad, whether immigrant workers will be required to leave after a set period, and whether they become eligible to become American citizens.
Beyond that, the labor and business groups agreed that American workers should have a first chance at available jobs and said they would improve the method for advertising open jobs. They agreed that not every employer will be able to fill certain jobs with Americans, particularly when the economy is good, and that it was important for businesses to be allowed to hire foreigners.
At this point, Sens. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) are expected to take the lead in filling out details, consulting with both business and labor groups. Senators writing the immigration bill are aiming to produce legislation in March.
"The fact that business and labor have agreed on principles is a major step forward," Mr. Schumer said. "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. We are very hopeful that an agreement can be reached on a specific proposal in the next few weeks."
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