Visas Are Urged for Lower-Skilled Work

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WASHINGTON -- In an effort to avert the bitter and public feuding between business and labor organizations that helped kill a broad immigration overhaul in 2007, representatives of the two groups released a statement on Thursday outlining shared goals designed to show that at least for now, they could reach a basic level of compromise.

In the statement, signed by Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Richard L. Trumka, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the groups called for a visa system that would let businesses meet their demand for lower-skilled workers, while offering protections for American workers.

The statement called for the creation of a government bureau that would use "real-world data about labor markets and demographics" to fashion a guest worker program -- an idea that the Chamber had until recently opposed. The statement also described "a new kind of worker visa program that does not keep all workers in a permanent temporary status" -- language that seems to imply, at least generally, the possibility of a pathway to legalization or even  citizenship for some guest workers.

The groups articulated three general goals: the assurance that American workers would have "a first crack at available jobs"; a new visa program for lower-skilled workers that would be adjusted to reflect the changing needs of businesses as the economy shrinks and expands; and greater transparency in determining the market need for temporary workers.

Traditionally, labor unions have rejected the idea of a guest worker program for lower-skilled workers, which they fear could take jobs away from American workers and depress wages. Business leaders have lobbied for a guest worker program, arguing that they need low-skilled labor for jobs -- in agriculture, for instance -- that American workers cannot or will not do. (A leaked draft of the president's immigration proposal said nothing about a guest worker program, perhaps a tacit acknowledgment that the White House was looking to labor and business leaders to forge their own agreement on the issue.)

The principles outlined on Thursday -- the product of months of negotiations between the groups -- required compromise from both sides. Labor unions, acknowledging that "there are instances -- even during tough economic times -- when employers are not able to fill job openings with American workers," agreed that there may be a need for a new type of guest worker program. In return, the unions insisted that American workers get a first shot at open jobs, and they secured an agreement that the number of incoming lower-skilled workers would be set based on need.

But even as there appears to be a growing consensus on some issues, a full-scale immigration overhaul remains a far-off prospect. This week, Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, came out against a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants -- a crucial component for Democrats for any immigration plan.

"People have a pathway to citizenship right now: It's to abide by the immigration laws, and if they have a family relationship, if they have a job skill that allows them to do that, they can obtain citizenship," Mr. Goodlatte told NPR. "But simply someone who broke the law, came here, say, 'I'll give you citizenship now,' that I don't think is going to happen."

Steven Greenhouse contributed reporting from New York.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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