WASHINGTON - Big business and major labor unions appeared ready Friday to end a fight over a new low-skilled worker program that had threatened to upend negotiations on a sweeping immigration bill in the Senate providing a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who's been brokering talks between the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement that negotiators are "very close, closer than we have ever been, and we are very optimistic." He said there were still a few issues remaining.
The talks stalled late last week amid a dispute over wages for workers in the new program, and senators left town for a two-week recess with the issue in limbo. Finger-pointing erupted between the AFL-CIO and the chamber, with each side accusing the other of trying to sink immigration reform, leaving prospects for a resolution unclear.
But talks resumed this week, and now officials from both sides indicate the wage issue has been largely resolved. An agreement would likely clear the way for a bipartisan group of senators to unveil legislation the week of April 8 to dramatically overhaul the U.S. immigration system, strengthening the border and cracking down on employers as well as remaking the legal immigration system while providing eventual citizenship to millions.
"We're feeling very optimistic on immigration: Aspiring Americans will receive the road map to citizenship they deserve and we can modernize 'future flow' without reducing wages for any local workers, regardless of what papers they carry," AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser said in a statement. "Future flow" refers to future arrivals of legal immigrants.
Under the emerging agreement, a new "W'' visa program would bring tens of thousands of lower-skilled workers a year to the country. The program would be capped at 200,000 a year, but the number of visas would fluctuate, depending on unemployment rates, job openings, employer demand and data collected by a new federal bureau pushed by the labor movement as an objective monitor of the market.