In a midnight session almost six years ago, then-Senator Barack Obama voted to gut a guest-worker program that sponsors of an immigration bill considered vital to their effort to legalize millions of undocumented residents.
A few weeks later, the bipartisan measure was dead -- blocked from a final vote by Republicans who called it amnesty for lawbreakers and Democrats who said it would hurt American workers and treat immigrants unfairly.
The failure of the 2007 effort illustrates the importance of an agreement announced yesterday by business and labor leaders on principles for a new visa program for low-skilled immigrants. Opposition to that one plank helped kill President George W. Bush’s attempt to revise immigration laws, and it could do the same to Obama’s campaign to grant legal status to 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S.
Obama’s record shows the political complexity of the issue: although he sought to impose a cutoff date for the guest-worker program, he voted to advance the broader bill.
It’s still bedeviling him. When the president unveiled his principles for an immigration rewrite last month, he opted not to propose visas for future immigrants working such jobs as landscaping, construction and at carnivals. A legislative draft of his administration’s immigration plan obtained by USA Today also omits any mention of a guest-worker program.
Obama “was part of the unholy alliance of labor Democrats and anti-immigrant Republicans who tried to cut it out of the bill in ’06 and ’07, and he has never mentioned it” since, said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorksUSA, a nationwide federation of state-based business groups advocating for new immigration laws. Employer groups have “been joking that his TelePrompTer has been skipping over it ever since.”
Labor unions recently reversed course on the issue. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue have been negotiating for two years in search of consensus on guest workers. Yesterday, they announced agreement on some broad principles, including the need for a market-driven worker-visa system that “automatically adjusts as the American economy expands and contracts.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the joint statement was “yet another sign of progress, of bipartisanship, and we are encouraged by it.”
While Obama would be open to a guest-worker program, his bottom line is the same today as it was almost six years ago: he wants to ensure it protects workers, both Americans and immigrants, said an administration aide who asked not to be named because he isn’t authorized to speak publicly.
For now, labor and business are far apart on how to structure a program that meets both the unions’ goal of protecting workers and employers’ desire to have timely access to workers. Devising one will be a challenge for a bipartisan group of eight senators who are writing a revision of immigration laws, which they plan to release next month.
“While the devil will be in the details in terms of fleshing these principles out, our staffs have had very productive discussions with both sides this week,” Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who is a part of the bipartisan group, said in a statement yesterday.
A spokesman for Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, another member of the group, sounded a more skeptical note. “While we are encouraged by today’s announcement, there is much work left to ensure we end this process with an effective guest worker program in place,” said the spokesman, Alex Conant.
There were 8 million unauthorized immigrants working in the U.S. in 2010, according to the Pew Hispanic Center’s most recent estimate, comprising 5.2 percent of the workforce. As of 2008, the last year for which such numbers are available, Pew said two-thirds of them labored in such low-skilled occupations as service, construction, and installation and repairs.
Granting legal status to those already in the U.S. and their families won’t resolve how the government should deal with future waves of immigrants entering the U.S. to perform such jobs.
“This could be the big silent killer in the room,” said Rebecca Tallent, the director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former top aide to Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, another member of the bipartisan group and a co-sponsor of the 2007 bill.
A final agreement between labor and business on the issue “won’t happen until it has to happen,” said Andy Stern, a public policy fellow at Columbia University and former president of the Washington-based Service Employees International Union. “It’s going to take enough momentum behind this that people who are holding strongly to certain positions feel like they have to cut a deal or they’re going to get left out.”
Republicans and the business community view creating a program to bring in low-skilled laborers as a vital component of any new immigration plan.
“This is the heart of the bill,” Jacoby said. “No matter what reason you’re unhappy about 11 million people here illegally, if we don’t create a guest-worker program, there’s going to be 11 million more 10, 20 years from now.”
Organized labor is skeptical, arguing that it could codify a class of indentured servitude for immigrants, depress wages and undermine worker protections across the board. The AFL-CIO opposed the 2007 immigration rewrite effort over the issue, and won backing from many Democratic senators -- including Obama, who was then running for president.
Schumer has said the issue “scuttled” previous immigration reform. McCain, at a Feb. 7 summit hosted by The Atlantic, called it “one of the toughest parts that we have not resolved.”
Business groups want a system that allows them to legally hire low-skilled foreigners after demonstrating they couldn’t find Americans to perform the jobs they’re seeking to fill.
Labor leaders are advocating creation of a government commission that would recommend, based on employment and other data, whether to issue additional work visas, and how many.
“Our position is that we shouldn’t be making these terribly important decisions without any data, as is the case now, and based on that data we can make the policy decisions that are required,” said Ana Avendano, AFL-CIO’s director of immigration and community action.
Ray Marshall, a former Labor Secretary under President Jimmy Carter who is consulting with unions on the issue, said he counseled the White House not to propose a low-skilled visas program as part of its immigration plan, arguing that “the burden of proof has to be on the people who say we have a shortage of workers.”
“Employers will object and say that we know more about the people we should bring in than any unelected commission, and my response is, ‘Sure you do, because your job is to maximize your profits’,” Marshall, now a labor economist at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a phone interview. “We need to see if you’re adequately protecting the domestic workers, and we have to see if you’re abusing the foreign workers.”
Yesterday’s agreed-upon principles include creation of a government research bureau to crunch employment and other data and identify future labor shortages. Yet the business lobby is opposed to giving such a body control over the visa program.
“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,” said Randel K. Johnson, who heads immigration policy at the chamber. “A better test of the labor market is a rigorous recruitment process that employers must follow to show that American workers are not actually available for the relevant job.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at or Jdavis159@bloomberg.net.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com