WASHINGTON - Labor and business officials have reached an agreement on a visa program to bring in up to 200,000 foreign workers a year to do janitorial, hospitality, retail and construction work, the AFL-CIO said Saturday.
The agreement would create a new "W-Visa" for the low-skilled workers and a new Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research to make recommendations on changes to the number of visas the country gives out each year.
The compromise between officials at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor union, clears one of the biggest hurdles facing legislators negotiating a sweeping immigration bill that would legalize the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants, strengthen border security and change the way the U.S. grants visas in the future.
"We have created a new model, a modern visa system that includes both a bureau to collect and analyze labor market data, as well as significant worker protections," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. "We expect that this new program, which benefits not just business, but everyone, will promote long overdue reforms by raising the bar for existing programs."
Bipartisan groups in the Senate and House who have been writing their own bills are hurrying to file their bills in early April, and President Obama has supported their efforts to move quickly on the complicated topic.
One of the biggest sticking points in the talks has been how much the foreign workers would be paid. Labor officials have been fearful that low salaries paid to the foreign workers would bring down wages for American workers.
Ava Avendaño, the AFL-CIO's director of immigration and community action, said the two sides agreed that the foreign workers would be paid the higher of the prevailing industry wage, or the actual wages paid by the employer to other workers with similar experience and qualifications.
The W-Visa Program would start April 1, 2015, and grant 20,000 visas in the first year. That would increase to 35,000 available visas in the second year, 55,000 visas in the third year and 75,000 in the fourth, Avendaño said. After that, the program would grow, or shrink, based on recommendations of the newly created immigration bureau.
The deal ensures that small businesses have access to the workers, and limits the number of W-Visas that can be granted to constructions companies.
Once granted a W-Visa, workers would be able to switch between U.S. employers - a possibility that does not exist under current law - and stay in the U.S. year-round. They would also be able to apply for legal permanent residence, or green cards, on their own. Current law requires employers to do that on their behalf.
The bipartisan group of senators negotiating an immigration bill, known as the Gang of 8, has asked business and labor to forge a compromise on this issue. Senators had not officially signed off on the agreement late Saturday. It's unclear how House members negotiating their own bill or the White House would view the agreement.
"This issue has always been the dealbreaker on immigration reform, but not this time," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who has been involved in the current immigration deal and several failed efforts in the past.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a group that supports an immigration plan that would legalize the nation's illegal immigrants, called the agreement a "historic breakthrough" that significantly increases the likelihood of an immigration plan passing Congress.
"It is the first time in our generation that the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce have come to terms on a new worker program," Sharry said Saturday. "We applaud labor and business for devising a 'break the mold' approach that carefully balances the need to protect native-born and immigrant workers alike with the desire of employers to access foreign workers when legitimately needed."