WASHINGTON (AP) — Big business and labor have struck a deal on a new low-skilled worker program, removing the biggest hurdle to completion of sweeping immigration legislation allowing 11 million illegal immigrants eventual U.S. citizenship, labor and Senate officials said Saturday.
The agreement was reached in a phone call late Friday night with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, U.S. Chamber of Commerce head Tom Donohue, and Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who's been mediating the dispute.
The deal resolves disagreements over wages for the new workers and which industries would be included. Those disputes had led talks to break down a week ago, throwing into doubt whether Schumer and seven other senators crafting a comprehensive bipartisan immigration bill would be able to complete their work as planned.
The deal must still be signed off on by the other senators working with Schumer, including Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida, but that's expected to happen, according to a person with knowledge of the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity. With the agreement in place, the senators are expected to unveil their legislation the week of April 8. Their measure would secure the border, crack down on employers, improve legal immigration and create a 13-year pathway to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants already here.
It's a major second-term priority of President Barack Obama's and would usher in the most dramatic changes to the nation's faltering immigration system in more than two decades.
"The strength of the consensus across America for just reform has afforded us the momentum needed to forge an agreement in principle to develop a new type of employer visa system," Trumka said in a statement late Saturday. "We expect that this new program, which benefits not just business, but everyone, will promote long overdue reforms by raising the bar for existing programs."
Schumer said: "This issue has always been the dealbreaker on immigration reform, but not this time."
The AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce, longtime antagonists over temporary worker programs, had been fighting over wages for tens of thousands of low-skilled workers who would be brought in under the new program to fill jobs in construction, hotels and resorts, nursing homes and restaurants, and other industries.
Under the agreement, a new "W'' visa program would go into effect beginning April 1, 2015, according to an AFL-CIO fact sheet.
In year one of the program, 20,000 workers would be allowed in; in year two, 35,000; in year three, 55,000; and in year four, 75,000. Ultimately the program would be capped at 200,000 workers a year, but the number of visas would fluctuate, depending on unemployment rates, job openings, employer demand and data collected by a new federal bureau pushed by the labor movement as an objective monitor of the market. One-third of all visas in any year would go to businesses with under 25 workers.
A "safety valve" would allow employers to exceed the cap if they can show need and pay premium wages, but any additional workers brought in would be subtracted from the following year's cap.
The workers could move from employer to employer and would be able to petition for permanent residency after a year, and ultimately seek U.S. citizenship. Neither is possible for temporary workers now.
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