Efforts to reform US immigration policies got an apparent boost over the weekend from an agreement between employers and labour unions that could ease the way for Congress as it tackles the issue in April.

The agreement addresses allocation of visas to low-skilled foreign workers, a hot button issue in the debate over immigration.

Senator Charles Schumer, the Democrat who is spearheading negotiations in Congress over the new policy, told NBC’s Meet the Press programme on Sunday that at least among the core negotiating group in the Senate, “Every major policy issue has been resolved.” But Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, cautioned that reports were “premature” that agreement had been reached in the eight-member bipartisan group.

Nonetheless, the verbal agreement between the US Chamber of Commerce, representing employers, and the country’s largest labour federation, the AFL-CIO, marked a breakthrough in the 30-year debate.

Labour unions have traditionally rejected claims by employers that they need unskilled labour from abroad, and there is currently no provision except for seasonal farm labour. Yet, as Tamar Jacoby, president of the pro-reform group ImmigrationWorks USA, noted, “Our economy couldn’t function without them.” The agreement would identify labour shortages and set up an annual cap on visas.

“We have created a new model, a modern visa system that includes both a bureau to collect and analyze labour market data, as well as significant worker protections,” said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka of the informal agreement.

The issue of immigration reform has been on the US agenda for three decades. An estimated 11 million illegal immigrants work and live in the United States.

The business-labour agreement would set up a new federal bureau, to be called the Bureau of Immigration and Labour Market Research, and a visa programme called the W Visa Programme, the AFL-CIO said.

It would be funded by employer fees, and could start as early as April 2015, if Congress approves.

Employers could apply through the programme for workers in lesser-skilled fields like hospitality, janitorial services, retail and construction.

Workers would be allowed to petition for permanent status after working for one year, under the employer-union deal. Democrats in the Senate also want to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants – a priority for US President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in his second term.

Under the labour-employer agreement, the programme would start with 20,000 visas the first year, building up to 75,000 in the fourth year, with a cap of 200,000 in any one year.

One-third of all visas would be issued to businesses that employ fewer than 25 people.

The White House yesterday said it was “encouraged” by progress in the Senate negotiating group and in the Senate in general.

“We are also encouraged by reports ... of an agreement or progress at least between the Chamber of Commerce and labour on that particular aspect of immigration,” said spokesman Jay Carney.

“However, we are not there yet, and this process is still under way in the Senate,” Carney warned.

Marco Rubio, a Republican member of the Senate negotiating group, said he was “encouraged” by the agreement but said any legislation the eight-senator group proposes would “only be a starting point.”

(This article was published on April 2, 2013)
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