Key groups reach immigration accord

The two biggest labor and business lobbying groups in the United States have reached an unexpected consensus on how they would want Congress to manage entry of low-skilled foreign workers into the U.S., a top priority in the push to overhaul the nation’s immigration system.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO announced their agreement Thursday, ending a weeks-long impasse that threatened to delay reform efforts.

The groups, which are often at odds in their bids to represent workers’ and corporate interests, agreed on three proposed points. First, they said, American workers should have the first chance at available jobs. Second, U.S. laws should permit businesses to easily and efficiently hire foreign workers. Third, an independent bureau should be established to track labor markets and demographics.

The first point is a kind of victory for the AFL-CIO, which says it is trying to protect American workers from having their jobs filled by foreigners who may be willing to work for lower wages.

Ana Avendano, the AFL-CIO’s director of immigration and chief negotiator in the talks, said jobs are often intentionally hidden from U.S. workers by corporations that discretely advertise them in newspapers or Web sites no one looks at.

“These jobs become hidden jobs, and when they’re filled, they’re filled with workers who are indentured to an employer,” she said of foreign applicants. “They can’t move around. Their only choice is to be deported or go home with a heavy debt” to labor recruiters.

A tenet of the agreement, if written into new legislation, would help those foreign workers along a path to permanent U.S. residency.

“Among other things, this requires a new kind of worker visa program that does not keep all workers in a permanent temporary status,” the groups said in a joint-statement.

According to Avendano, foreign workers should be allowed to self-petition for a green card under the new program.

“We’re proposing a visa program that doesn’t exist right now,” she said. “We didn’t want to recreate mistakes of the past.”

U.S. President Barack Obama has made immigration reform a priority for his second and final term in office. Thursday, White House press secretary Jay Carney would not say whether the president supports such a visa program, but he did call the agreement encouraging.

“We see this agreement on principles as a positive development, a sign of progress,” Carney said. “But I’m not going to prejudge a bill that has not been written.”

A bipartisan working group of senators is hoping to introduce new immigration legislation next month. The lawmakers had urged the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce to overcome their differences to try to avoid future delays by the powerful lobbies.

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