For months, business and labor leaders have been negotiating over a crucial aspect of immigration reform -- how to handle future flows of lesser-skilled workers. But the next few weeks may determine whether the two sides can reach an agreement that could prove crucial to the greater effort to overhaul the nation's immigration system.
Both sides have already agreed to a common set of principles, including the creation of a new visa for lesser-skilled workers who come to the U.S. for year-round work. At present, no visa category provides for that type of immigrant worker.
But with the Senate group approaching a self-imposed late-March deadline for a bill, there have been signs that negotiations between labor and business are strained. Both AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Republican John McCain (Ariz.), one of the senators working on the reform bill, have acknowledged that the two sides might not reach a deal on how to handle flows of lesser-skilled workers.
But despite the public doubts, negotiations are still very much alive, according to Randy Johnson, the senior vice president of labor, immigration, and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"I think it's a sign that it's not all a bed of roses, but one could make the same argument about the various disagreements that I'm sure you're seeing in the press over legalization versus citizenship," Johnson said in an interview. "But all of these are just bumps in the road, and we hope to get through them and still come up with a deal."
Ana Avendaño, a top immigration policy aide at AFL-CIO, said that unions believe they have an advantage in negotiations because of the reelection of President Barack Obama, whose immigration plan -- which is being withheld while members of Congress craft their own bill -- aligns closely with labor goals.
"This is the mandate that the president was elected with," said Avendaño. "To actually fix the immigration system in a way that respects the democratic rights of the immigrant community. And so anything short of a path to citizenship just isn't going to satisfy the people who elected the president."
Labor isn't just backing a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented currently living in the country. The new visa program for lesser-skilled workers should also contain an eventual path to citizenship, Avendaño said. The framework released last month by labor and business said that the new visa would "not keep all workers in a permanent temporary status," but doesn't spell out a specific roadmap to citizenship for those workers. Avendaño believes the balance of power is tipping in favor of worker rights.
"The power dynamics are such now that immigrants and immigrant communities have a much stronger voice in this process then they've had in the past, and I would say the same thing for workers," she said.
Johnson, who has been involved in immigration talks on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce, didn't disagree, but painted a fuller picture of where the dealmaking stands.
"Well, I think it strengthens their hand a bit in negotiations, but it's going to take 60 votes to pass a bill in the Senate and, therefore, Republican support is going to be necessary in passing the bill."
If labor and business can't come to an agreement on lesser-skilled workers, a Senate bill might face a hard road ahead.
"I've had a lot of meetings on the Hill on this issue, and I would say it would put the whole bill in serious jeopardy," Johnson said. "Because critical players on the Hill, including Republicans, believe that this kind of program is a necessary part of having a rational immigration policy." Any future worker program will need to be "simpler and more logical" than the current programs, Johnson added.
While how to handle future flows of lesser-skilled is still under debate, the Senate group working on reform has come to an more-detailed agreement on a pathway to citizenship for the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants, the Los Angeles Times reported on Monday.
Immigrants without papers would need to apply for a probationary legal status, and meet certain qualifications, such as passing a criminal background check and filing federal income taxes. A person qualifying for the probationary status would not be allowed to receive federal public benefits, including food stamps, family cash assistance, Medicaid and unemployment insurance, the L.A. Times reported.
The senate group hasn't finalized how long it will take for undocumented immigrants to receive a green card, but legislative aides said the delay could be 10 years or longer.
The agreement represents a significant step forward in the legislative process, but major questions about the bill still remain. One of the biggest will be negotiations over future flows of lower-skilled workers.
"It's an area where you quickly move from the 100,000-foot level to a jungle of details," Johnson said. "But those are important details to sort through, and we're still hopeful we can do it."