WASHINGTON The largest American union and the country's biggest business lobby group said Thursday they agreed on principles for revamping the low-skilled worker visa program, a move hailed as major progress that could hasten immigration reform in Congress.
The AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said they agreed on three points that would ensure that American workers get the first opportunity at jobs, create a new guest worker program and establish another bureaucracy to analyze labor trends and advise Congress.
But the principles were vague. And although the AFL-CIO and chamber said they would continue to work together, there was no talk of producing a document to address tricky details such as how to determine there are no qualified American workers for a job.
"The more you get into the details of implementation the harder it gets," said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank who specializes in immigration policy. The principles "leave a lot of the hard stuff to be resolved."
A group of Democratic and Republican Senators is trying to craft a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would include giving the 11 million illegal immigrants a way to earn citizenship.
The bipartisan group had been counting on labor and business to resolve longstanding issues that have hampered past efforts to rewrite U.S. immigrations laws.
"While we are encouraged by today's announcement, there is much work left to ensure we end this process with an effective guest worker program in place," said a spokesman for Republican Marco Rubio, who is part of the Senate group and has helped garner support from conservatives traditionally opposed to immigration reform.
The principles represented concessions from both sides. Unions, which oppose temporary guest worker programs because they say they allow employers to exploit workers, agreed to create a new worker visa program that does not keep all workers in a permanent temporary status.
And businesses, which want the freedom to hire whom they want and normally oppose further government intervention, agreed that a "professional bureau" in a federal agency was needed to inform lawmakers and the public on labor shortages.
The two sides have been negotiating for weeks in parallel with the bipartisan Senate group, which is aiming to unveil legislation before April. Lawmakers said the new agreement will strengthen their hand because it demonstrates backing by two key constituencies for the effort.
"The fact that business and labor have agreed on principles is a major step forward," said Democrat Charles Schumer, another member of the bipartisan Senate group. "We are very hopeful that an agreement can be reached on a specific proposal in the next few weeks."
(Reporting By Rachelle Younglai; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)