(Bloomberg) -- Two years ago, the U.S. certified about 75,000 low-skilled laborers for guest-worker visas.
Under the first year of a new plan that business and labor leaders have tentatively approved as part of a Senate proposal to revise the nation’s immigration laws, employers would be able to bring in another 20,000 a year. That would gradually rise to 75,000 -- though never exceed more than 200,000 a year.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce wanted to double that number. In that new “W-Visa Program” envisioned to start in April 2015, labor unions have secured caps on the number of foreign, low-skilled workers allowed in the U.S., particularly in a construction industry suffering high unemployment.
The agreement marked the last major obstacle for a bipartisan group of eight senators seeking consensus on a rewrite of U.S. immigration laws, as they prepare to unveil legislation as soon as this week. Other issues remain, such as visas for farm workers, as part of a package that would offer a possible path to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.
The lawmakers still face a sales job in the Senate, as well as reconciliation with the Republican-run House.
Perhaps more than the details of a still tentative agreement among union, business and Senate leaders, observers say, politics brought the two sides together.
“It was a prisoners’ dilemma,” says Chris Newman, legal director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network in Los Angeles. “Both the chamber and organized labor stood to be accused of the crime of killing comprehensive immigration reform.”
The chamber backed down on its demand for more visas as the AFL-CIO maintained that many immigrants, once given legal working status, may start competing with Americans for higher- paying jobs in construction, where the unemployment rate is 15.7 percent. Visas for construction work would be capped at 15,000 a year in the W-Visa plan, which labor says is not a true temporary worker program like the H2-B visa used by many seasonal workers because participants could petition for permanent status after one year.
The business lobby is concerned that the caps may be too low to meet the demands of a growing U.S. economy.
The compromise reached March 29 shows how quickly the immigration debate is advancing after an election in which the Hispanic vote was so crucial to President Barack Obama’s re- election that interest groups are as concerned as the political parties about standing in the way of a broad new immigration law.
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