March 15, 2013— -- Private negotiations between business and labor interests over immigration reform have more or less ended, with the dealmaking moving on to a group of Democrats and Republicans working on a bill in the Senate, according to key players from both camps.
Talks between both sides have been fruitful so far. In February, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO agreed to a common set of principles for reform that focused on how to handle future flows of lower-skilled workers. That blueprint can still serve to instruct a bill in the Senate, but the two sides appear to be finished hashing out details together.
"The idea that we were going to negotiate a final deal and to represent it as a baked cake was always a little bit unrealistic," said Randy Johnson, the senior vice president of labor, immigration, and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "So in this case, we met, we outlined the issues and then it kind of moved up to the Hill, and they've got some very good staff who are working on this."
Both the Chamber and labor unions have shifted gears this week, increasingly promoting their own messages in the public eye. On Wednesday, the Chamber launched a website making its case for immigration reform, and it plans to run pro-reform ads in several states. Unions, meanwhile, have held rallies across the country emphasizing their reform agenda, including the protection of family-based visas in any reform plan.
While labor unions and the Chamber found common ground on the basic principles for reform, hashing out the details proved more difficult. For example, the two sides agreed to the creation of a new visa for lesser-skilled workers, but the Chamber originally asked for 400,000 visas per year through the new program. Unions countered with a number that was "significantly" less, according to Johnson.
When asked by a reporter how much less, Johnson said that the amount was in the tens of thousands per year, a figure which is unpalatable to the Chamber.
"It's pretty damn close to zero," he said.
Ana Avendaño, a top immigration policy aide at AFL-CIO, wouldn't comment on the number of visas proposed by the unions, but shot back at the Chamber for going public with aspects of the negotiations.
"I don't think it's responsible to be talking details right now," Avendaño said. "Frankly, it shows that there's a little political desperation there. They know that they don't have the votes [to get what] they actually want."
Any immigration reform bill will be complex and stocked with controversial issues. But at the negotiating table, one of the most challenging issues has been how to handle future flows of lesser-skilled workers. Both Johnson and Avendaño said that moving the discussion to the Senate was a standard part of the political process.
Business and labor are more closely aligned on another controversial part of reform: whether to create a path to legalization or citizenship for the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. Avendaño said "an inclusive and swift" path to citizenship was her organization's top priority.
The Chamber, for its part, backs legal status for those who meet certain qualifications, like paying a fine and learning English, but they don't specifically call for a path to citizenship. Spokesperson Blair Latoff Holmes wrote about the Chamber's position in an e-mail:
"We believe that Congress needs to afford a workable means for people to come out the shadows, so the country can have a stable workforce and so we don't have a permanent underclass of people who do not have the opportunity to become citizens."