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Business and Labor Unite to Try to Alter Immigration Laws

February 8, 2013
The New York Times
Steven Greenhouse

After decades of friction over immigration, the nation’s labor unions and the leading business association, the Chamber of Commerce, have formed an unusual alliance that is pushing hard to revamp American immigration laws.

These oft-feuding groups agree on the need to enact a way for the 11 million immigrants illegally in the United States to gain citizenship. And they are also nearing common ground on a critical issue — the number of guest workers allowed into the country — that has deeply divided business and labor for years and helped to sink President George W. Bush’s push for an immigration overhaul in 2007.

In redefining what constitutes a guest worker and in revamping the method to determine how many should be allowed in, business and labor groups are sketching out new proposals that are distinct departures from earlier legislative approaches.

The issue has long been one of contention, with businesses like hotels and farmers saying they need a large supply of seasonal workers while unions complain that these workers are often exploited. To try to resolve their differences, they are discussing what they call a “data-driven system” that would determine how many “provisional workers” would be let in each year to work on farms, summer resorts and elsewhere.

One proposal labor is pushing would have Congress establish a panel that would use economic, industry and regional data (like unemployment rates) to determine how many provisional workers should be allowed in annually to work in industries, like farming, that have seasonal surges in their demand for laborers. But business groups say they worry that such a panel would be unwieldy and act too slowly to meet employers’ needs.

Under the proposals, the number of provisional workers permitted might increase when America’s unemployment rate was low and then shrink if the rate was high. In addition, many of these provisional visa holders, after working successfully in the United States for several years, might be given permanent residency that could lead to citizenship.

In another important step forward, many labor unions have joined with the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups in embracing E-Verify, a federal electronic system that uses Social Security numbers and other data to verify that newly hired workers are in the country legally. Union leaders have frequently denounced E-Verify as error-prone, a continuing concern. They said it often declared that immigrants with valid papers were not authorized to work.

When President Bush pushed for an immigration overhaul in 2007, many unions — long detesting the guest-worker program — helped to persuade the Senate to phase out that program within five years. Once that phaseout was approved, many business groups grew far less enthusiastic about the immigration effort. That encouraged many Republicans — already uneasy about what they viewed as “amnesty” — to vote against the plan.

Maria Elena Durazo, the chairwoman of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s immigration committee, said labor’s opposition to the guest-worker program was longstanding. “Guest workers have no rights and no voice and no possibility of ever becoming legalized,” she said. “If they protest about wages or unsafe conditions, they risk getting deported.”

Many businesses have complaints with the current guest-worker program, disliking the frequent requirement to place advertisements to determine whether American workers are available before they can bring in guest workers.

“You have to go through four government agencies and often hire a lawyer and an agent,” said Shawn McBurney, senior vice president of governmental affairs at the American Hotel and Lodging Association. “It’s unbelievably complicated, cumbersome and expensive.”

Labor unions have urged business to embrace a plan pushed by Ray Marshall, labor secretary under President Jimmy Carter. He suggests creating a commission of experts who would use economic data to determine, for instance, whether 20,000 or 40,000 immigrants should be granted provisional visas to do seasonal work nationwide at shellfish plants, restaurants or apple orchards.

“Instead of a system that works at the whim of any employer, it will be a data-driven system,” said Richard Trumka, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. Under the current system, he noted, employers have applied repeatedly for new batches of guest workers. A data-driven system would ensure an adequate flow of immigrants to help employers meet seasonal needs, he said.

Mr. McBurney of the hotel association disagreed. “It will never work,” he said. “There are no experts who will know exactly what the economy will need — this was proved by command and control economies. The bureaucracy will never be able to respond to the economy. The economy is a very dynamic thing. Bureaucracies aren’t so dynamic.”

Randel K. Johnson, senior vice president for labor policy at the United States Chamber of Commerce, agreed. “We oppose the commission because it would never be able to determine shortages in a timely manner that reflect the always-changing realities of the marketplace.”

Angelo Amador, vice president for labor policy at the National Restaurant Association, serves on the business-labor group seeking a consensus approach. “I’m optimistic about reaching an agreement,” on guest workers, he said. “The pressure on both sides is great. If we don’t come up with something, someone else is going to be drafted by other people.”

Demetrios G. Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington research group, predicted that it would be “extremely difficult” for the two sides to reach agreement on guest workers. He warned that without a deal between business and labor, the whole push for immigration changes could fail.

“They could get very close on this issue but might not be able to build a bridge to the other side,” he said. “One side starts from wanting zero guest workers and the other starts from unlimited. The unlimited side might move a lot, but the one that started with zero might not.”

He said the stakes were high for the union movement because if it plays a major role in gaining legal status for illegal immigrants, labor’s image will soar among immigrants, and that might help persuade many immigrants to push to join unions.

Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, said labor unions were making a huge push for immigration changes.

“If we are going to make conditions better for all workers, we need to make sure that undocumented workers have the same rights as everybody else,” he said. “Otherwise, they’ll be used to lower labor standards.”

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