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Business and Labor Unite on Immigration Reform, But Future Uncertain

The AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce are recommending a new type of immigration visa program that is not tied to single employers.

While the business sector and organized labor agree that immigration reform must include a road map to citizenship, there remain significant concerns over what will be addressed – and who will be left out – in the bill being drafted in the Senate.

In February, the AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce released a statement of shared principles on comprehensive immigration reform. Despite this alliance of two groups that have in the past had competing views on undocumented workers, it remains to be seen how their recommendations will play out in the drafting of a reform bill that is expected in April.

It is now up to the “Gang of Eight” – the bipartisan group of eight senators currently working on the bill – to negotiate the future of 11 million undocumented workers.

The group includes Republicans John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and Jeff Flake, as well as Democrats Charles Schumer, Dick Durbin, Michael Bennet, and Robert Menendez.

Ana Avendaño, the AFL-CIO’s director of immigration and community action, says that an inclusive path to citizenship is the key part of immigration reform.

“Without a broad path to citizenship, the whole bill essentially falls apart,” she says.

Avendaño, along with representatives from the Center for American Progress and the immigration reform advocacy group America’s Voice, participated in a national telebriefing for ethnic media reporters held by New America Media.

Senators Graham and Schumer have met with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue to discuss “future flow” – bringing workers into the United States to meet future business demands and labor shortages.

Avendaño states that it is in the labor movement’s interests to have a system that respects workers’ rights and reunites them with their families. Business and labor are recommending a new type of visa program for lesser-skilled workers that is not tied to single employers, and that allows workers to self-petition for permanent residency and then citizenship.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, states that this would be different from traditional guest worker programs “that inevitability lead to exploitation,” separating workers from their families and forcing them to leave after a certain amount of time.

But some Republicans want to recalibrate reform efforts in a way that would promote business-related immigration (such as high-skilled foreign workers) but would restrict the immigration of family members of legal residents.

Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the Center for American Progress, expresses concern over the backlog of 4 million people who are waiting to be legally reunited with family members in the United States.

“People won’t endure that separation,” she says, citing the many people who risk living in the United States illegally rather than be apart from their children and spouses.

There are other notable problems that have yet to be addressed within the framework that business and labor have presented to the Gang of Eight.

The future of E-Verify, the federal database used by employers to check workers’ immigration status, remains uncertain. The system has been widely criticized by civil rights groups, in part because it has been found to be riddled with errors.

Avendaño says the AFL-CIO is opposed to the use of E-Verify because it is easily manipulated by employers. When workers try to organize, employers can use the verification system to “deport away their problems,” rather than address workplace issues.

Sharry says that the forthcoming bill will certainly include an employee verification system, but that “the current E-Verify system is vastly flawed,” and that the system covers less than 10 percent of new hires. A verification system must be built, he says, that is accurate and protects workers.

Also absent from principles agreed upon by business and labor is how to deal with undocumented workers who have criminal records. Many workers use false documents in order to be employed in the United States, putting them at risk for arrest, which under most reform plans would exclude them from a path to citizenship.

The Gang of Eight’s bill is expected to be completed in April, after which it will go before the Senate Judiciary Committee. If the bill passes out of committee it will go to the Senate floor, and then on to the House.

“We’re optimistic that the conditions [for immigration reform] are the best they’ve been in a long time,” says Kelley.

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