Since Congress is about to embark on a two-week break, it’s become apparent that senators in the bipartisan Gang of Eight are blowing through their original early March deadline for completing their immigration bill. After Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy publicly complained about the delay this week and two dozen immigration advocates protested in Chuck Schumer’s office, on Thursday the senator from New York insisted that the bill is nearly done. “About 90 percent of the issues, including the path to citizenship, are settled,” Schumer said. A large part of that last 10 percent appears to be a showdown between labor unions and big business over a guest worker program.
The dispute over visas for low-skilled foreign workers has been brewing for some time and was one of the reasons that immigration reform failed in 2007. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that this time, Democrats and labor unions are pushing for a program that would offer 10,000 visas initially with a cap of 200,000 visas; more visas would be offered based on a formula tied to the unemployment rate and other economic data. Republicans want to start the program with 25,000 or 35,000 visas and say the amount offered should rely more on the needs of employers rather than recommendations by the government. Labor unions also want to see guarantees of better wages, and suggest businesses want a program that would allow them to exploit workers. Businesses counter that under the unions’ plan, the program would be so expensive and unresponsive that it would be totally ineffective.
While both parties believe it’s necessary to pass immigration reform this time around, some Republicans have already started publicly blaming unions for blocking the deal, just in case the effort fails. “I’m not going to be part of a bill that doesn’t create a process whereby people can come to this country temporarily in the future if we need them,” Marco Rubio said on Thursday. “There’s no secret that the broader labor movement, with some exceptions, would rather not even have an immigration bill.” Rep. Raul Labrador added, “It’s the labor unions who do not want a guest worker program that’s viable, that’s functional.”
John McCain was more diplomatic, and said he still thinks the senators will be able to come to an agreement shortly — even if no one is thrilled with the results. “Obviously there are concerns on our side about the influence of the unions, and on their side there’s concerns about the influence of business,” McCain said. “That’s why we’ve got to continue these negotiations, recognizing that sometimes both sides are not going to be happy.”