Opinion: Columnists

Sean Higgins: Big Business and Big Labor team up for Big Amnesty

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Opinion,Columnists,Sean Higgins,Campaign 2012

Most of the attention on whether immigration reform occurs this year is focused on lawmakers in Congress, but the most important discussions may be happening at the Hay-Adams hotel and the Equinox restaurant in downtown D.C.

That's where Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka often meet for lunch. Lately, they've been trying to hammer out a compromise they and other business and labor groups can all back on immigration.

If the two can reach a deal, they may be able to bring on board wavering lawmakers in both parties. If they can't, organizing a broad enough coalition to pass the bill may be impossible.

"We're not there yet," said Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union and a participant in the labor-chamber discussions.

Unlike with the Capitol Hill negotiations, legalizing existing immigrants in America isn't at issue here. Both sides are fine with that. They avoid saying "amnesty" only because the word itself has become toxic.

What's holding them up is another issue that also poisoned Congress's last serious stab at reform back in 2007: a temporary guest worker program. Big Business wants it, and Big Labor hates it. They've struggled to find middle ground.

"The temporary worker program is always an issue," Medina said. "We are united on the fact that we want a legalization program. The question is how do immigrants of the future come to the U.S. and under what conditions? That's what we're working on."

The idea of Big Business and Big Labor teaming up may surprise some, but the two groups have often worked together when their interests align. It's helped by the fact that Trumka and Donohue have, by all accounts, a very good working relationship.

Two years ago, for example, the pair held several joint events to urge Congress to pass another multibillion-dollar infrastructure bill to provide economic stimulus.

Immigration is another area where their interests overlap. The chamber has long supported relatively liberal policies, arguing that immigrant labor is urgently needed, especially in the agriculture and service industries.

The chamber's official summary of its immigration position calls for "programs [that] would allow employers to hire immigrants in accordance with the demands of the economy."

Although the chamber generally supports amnesty, it will happily settle for a more limited bill so long as it provides businesses with workers. Critics argue that's what they really want, because, as noncitizens, those temporary workers would have fewer rights. Big Labor has historically been more hostile to immigration, viewing illegal immigrants as scabs who depress wages. That attitude has changed in recent decades, though, as unions have had more success organizing immigrants, particularly in the service industry.

Still, they have opposed comprehensive bills in the past when they have included temporary worker programs, because by definition those workers don't stick around and therefore can't be organized.

In 2007, then-AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told the Associated Press: "Without a real path to legalization, [reform] will exclude millions of workers and thus ensure that America will have two class of workers, only one of which can exercise workplace rights."

Sweeney was reacting to the immigration bill championed by Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., which included a temporary worker program.

Though GOP opposition is usually credited with killing the McCain/Kennedy bill, the AFL-CIO also came out against the final version. That, coupled with criticism from immigration groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens, weakened its Democratic support.

The bill failed a series of cloture votes in June 2007. A final effort on June 28 received only 46 votes, 14 short of the ones needed to invoke cloture. Sixteen Democrats voted with 37 Republicans to kill the reform. Had those Democrats voted for cloture, the bill would have passed.

The dynamic could repeat itself. For now, the Senate bill is leaning the chamber's way.

"We were especially pleased that the framework specifically recognizes the need for businesses to have the ability to hire lower-skilled workers," chamber spokeswoman Blair Holmes told me.

But the chamber is also aware that this helped to sink reform the last time and doesn't want it to happen again. Whether Donohue and Trumka can strike some accord will likely matter as much as for the future of immigration as anything Congress or the White House does.

Medina is confident they can: "I think that, at the end of the day, we will be able to come to an agreement because neither business nor labor wants to be an impediment to immigration reform."

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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