Jan. 31, 2013 -- After a group of senators released their blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform last week, two aspects of the plan dominated the news: a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and increased spending on the border.
The Senate group, made up of four Republicans and four Democrats, isn't as far apart on those issues as you might think.
The initial blueprint acknowledges that undocumented immigrants need a way to become legal, and that they should go to "the back of the line." While there are important details to be hashed out, that they've agreed on this basic premise is huge.
The senators also agree that the government should spend more money on border security. While the dollar amount is still up for debate, increased funding to monitor the border will definitely be part of any reform package.
Still, the Senate "Gang of Eight" hasn't committed to a position on one of the most complicated and impactful aspects of reform: how to handle future waves of immigrant workers, specifically those doing manual labor.
The Senate blueprint acknowledges that most undocumented immigrants come to the U.S. looking for work, and that businesses need a way to hire lower-skilled workers "in a timely manner." But it doesn't explain how it would make that happen.
That's because negotiations between two major interest groups -- business and labor -- are still ongoing, according to Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO. He's sitting at the table with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its CEO, Tom Donohue, a partnership that makes for strange bedfellows, as CNN recently pointed out.
"We're making good progress and I think we can come to a working conclusion very soon," Trumka told ABC/Univision.
At the center of the negotiation is whether an immigration reform plan should contain new or expanded guest worker programs, which allow immigrants to work in the U.S. on a temporary basis. The majority of the current guest worker programs do not contain a pathway to citizenship.
Traditionally, unions have opposed guest worker programs altogether. That stance is affirmed in a 2009 list of reform principles by the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win Federation, the two umbrella organizations representing the vast majority of labor unions.
Instead of a guest worker program with a set number of temporary visas, unions want a system where the number of available visas will shrink and grow along with the labor need. If certain sectors experienced labor shortages, more visas would be made available.
Unions want the immigration bill to establish a commission that would evaluate the state of the economy. That commission would then make a recommendation about how many visas to issue each year. The body would be "independent, data-driven and professionally run," Trumka said. Unions would also have a seat at the table.
Proponents of guest worker programs and the free market approach to immigration think such a commission would stifle economic growth.
"We shouldn't have to rely on a government bureaucracy to determine how many guest workers come in," said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst for the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. "The market should determine that. Government commissions can't even figure out how to manage the budget, I don't think they're going to figure out something that's even more complicated like guest workers or immigration."
Of all the points of division in an immigration reform bill, so-called "future flows" could be one of the most difficult to reconcile. As it stands, the senators working on the bill are waiting for business and labor to come to an agreement, according to a legislative aide involved in the drafting of the bill.
Trumka would not comment on whether unions would consider an expansion of guest worker programs as part of an immigration deal. "I'm not going to speculate on where we're going," he said. "I'm trying to get a bill and get this done as quickly as we can."
Legislators have another option: leave that aspect of the immigration system alone, and kick the can down the road for another administration.
But Trumka thinks that would defeat the purpose of a comprehensive solution, and leave the U.S. with a broken immigration system. "If you're going to fix the problem, you have to deal with future flows," he said.