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A way forward

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Two groups that have often been at odds on immigration reform are now finding common ground.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO have worked out a compromise on one of the most contentious issues in the national debate — addressing the need for low-skilled foreign workers in low-wage jobs going unfilled by Americans. Businesses generally want to make it easier for foreign workers to obtain visas to enter the country. Labor groups, however, have sought limits and restrictions on immigrant workers to protect American workers.

The Chamber and AFL-CIO concluded months of closed-door talks with a set of guidelines addressing their respective concerns.

Under the general principles in the agreement, businesses and companies unable to find American workers would be allowed to hire foreign workers, but companies would have to advertise to Americans, who would have “a first crack at available jobs.”

Immigrant workers would be allowed to enter the United States under a new visa program that would allow some temporary workers a chance to apply for a green card to become permanent residents. There would also be protections for wages and working conditions, as sought by labor.

Under the new visa plan, workers would not be tied to a particular employer, which would allow them to move from job to job without having to leave the country.

The number of workers that could be admitted under the new system would vary, depending on the economy.

To help determine that need, the agreement calls for a new bureau within an existing, unspecified federal executive agency to monitor labor data and make recommendations on the number of foreign workers that should be allowed each year using unemployment figures and other labor-market conditions. It would still be up to Congress to set the specific quotas, as it is now.

The two groups worked out their agreement under pressure from a bipartisan group of eight senators, who have been crafting their own comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

A guest-worker program is a critical part of any bill that will also take into consideration border security, employer verification and the status of 11 million illegal immigrants here now. Disagreement between labor and business over temporary workers helped block immigration reform efforts five years ago.

The details of the joint principles still have to be worked out with lawmakers drafting a bill. However, Sen. Charles Schumer called the agreement between labor and business a “major step forward.”

Many hurdles remain, but the framework is emerging for what should be a comprehensive immigration overhaul this year.

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