Underscoring the risk for Republicans, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., on Tuesday embraced "an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home." It appeared to be a change for Cantor, who voted against DREAM Act legislation to allow a path to citizenship for certain immigrants brought here as youths.
The guest worker program addresses what's called "future flow" — the influx of migrants to the U.S. that's sure to come whether or not Congress passes an immigration bill.
If Congress does act to provide a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in the country, it's just as important to deal with future immigration, advocates say. Otherwise, the country will again find itself home to many illegal immigrants. A major criticism of the 1986 immigration law signed by President Ronald Reagan, which offered legalization to some 3 million illegal immigrants, was that it did not deal with the issue of future immigration — allowing today's problems to emerge.
In 2007, comprehensive immigration legislation foundered after an amendment was added to end a temporary worker program after five years, threatening a key priority of the business community. The amendment passed by just one vote, 49-48. Obama, a senator at the time, joined in the narrow majority voting to end the program after five years.
The U.S. does have several temporary worker programs already, but they're viewed as cumbersome and outdated, and experts say a large proportion of migrant workers in agricultural and other low-skill fields like landscaping or housekeeping are in the U.S. illegally.
For business and labor, the question is how to come to an agreement on how many workers to let in, under what circumstances and how much they would be paid. Another key issue: whether and how they would be able to attain eventual permanent residency, the critical step toward citizenship.
"We have to get to the question of what is the structure for the future and what rights do the workers that get here in the future, what rights do they have," said Eliseo Medina, secretary treasurer of the Service Employees International Union.
For business groups, a temporary worker program is a key piece of any immigration legislation.
"It's not as if employers want to hire guest workers. We want to hire Americans. It's only when we can't find them that we hire the guest workers," said Shawn McBurney, senior vice president of government affairs at the American Hotel and Lodging Association.
The Senate aide said that lawmakers are eyeing somewhere in the range of 200,000 to 400,000 visas for low-skilled temporary workers, including for agriculture and non-agriculture. Unlike in current programs, negotiators are also eyeing ways to peg the numbers to labor market demands. Employers would have to show they could not find American workers for the jobs.
The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute and others have proposed the creation of a permanent commission that would make recommendations about where and when workers are needed, an idea said to be under consideration as the business and labor groups negotiate. However, business groups are skeptical of the idea.