Big business and labor finally resolved a dispute over a low-skilled worker program that was a major obstacle in the ongoing efforts for a sweeping immigration reform bill. However, Fla. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's office cautioned that Congress still has a long way to go.
The deal was struck in a phone call late Friday night with AFL-CIO labor federation 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 Associated Press reported.
A person familiar with the negotiations was quoted as saying that the deal resolves disagreements over wages for the new workers and the industries that should be included.
"This issue has always been the dealbreaker on immigration reform, but not this time," Schumer said in a statement Saturday night.
"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. "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."
However, Rubio said Congress has a long way to go before passing legislation in the Senate and the House. In a letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., he called for a deliberate hearing process on the new legislation and cautioned against a "rush to legislate," Fox News reported.
"Senate negotiators are making good progress on immigration reform, but we're not done yet," Rubio Press Secretary Alex Conant tweeted Saturday.
White House spokesman Clark Stevens also appeared cautiously optimistic, saying Obama continues to be encouraged by the progress being made by the bipartisan group of senators. "We look forward to seeing language once it is introduced and expect legislation to move forward as soon as possible," he said.
According to the AFL-CIO, the two sides have agreed on a new "Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research," which would be housed in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and would be responsible for determining the number of visas based on labor shortages, unemployment, and the impact of immigration on labor markets, ABC News reported.
Business and labor groups have also agreed to a new visa program, the "W Visa Program," which would begin in April 2015, allowing employers to petition for lesser-skilled foreign workers for non-seasonal, non-agricultural jobs. The visa would not be temporary, workers would not be tied to a single employer and they would be allowed to petition for permanent status after one year. The visa cap would vary depending on the number of job openings and several other factors, but it would never be lower than 20,000 a year and never higher than 200,000 a year.
The two groups had agreed to a set of broad principles on a low-skilled visa program last month, but they could not work out the details of such a plan. Late last week, disputes over the new visa program threatened to derail immigration reform talks between the group of four Republican and four Democratic senators. The AFL-CIO accused Republicans and businesses of trying to undercut wages, while the Chamber, the biggest business lobby, said unions were endangering the immigration reform effort.
The bipartisan Senate group is expected to introduce the bill early April after Congress returns from a two-week recess.