By  on May 21, 2007

WASHINGTON — Business and labor groups reacted with caution to a new immigration deal brokered between the White House and senators last week amid deep divisions in Congress over whether an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants should be given temporary legal status leading to citizenship.

The fragile, bipartisan deal came as factionalized deal-making on issues from trade, minimum wage and war spending appeared to lack the consensus needed to get through Congress.

As the Senate prepared to take up comprehensive immigration reform legislation this week, detractors already were surfacing and complaining about the deal with the White House.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), reflecting the discontent on Capitol Hill, said in a statement: "It's disappointing and even ironic how the deal announced today skirts the democratic processes of Congress. It was cut by a group of senators operating outside the committees of jurisdiction and without public hearings on key components."

The prospects of an historic legislative overhaul of immigration laws passing both the Senate and the House, being reconciled in conference and signed by President Bush this year are far from certain.

House and Senate Republicans didn't waste any time in calling the legislative proposal "amnesty" because it would allow the illegal immigrants living and working here to stay in the U.S. under "probationary status" and begin a process of background checks, paying a $1,000 fine and receiving a counterfeit-proof biometric card to apply for a work visa.

Some labor groups and Democrats also blasted the compromise deal, arguing the establishment of a merit-based system for future immigrants applying for permanent residency would undermine fundamental immigration rights.

Business groups, such as the National Retail Federation, were reluctant to weigh in with a full assessment on the proposal Friday because details of the language in the actual legislation had not been settled and the outline of the compromise was sketchy.

The NRF is keeping a close eye on a provision that would require employers to electronically verify the legal status of new hires as well as all employees.

The legislative proposal would make the employer verification program mandatory and retailers are concerned about having to verify the legal status of all of their employees, in addition to the costs associated with the system and the liability standards under which employers could be penalized for hiring illegal immigrants."I think the overarching concern is actual applicability," said Rob Green, vice president for government and political affairs at the NRF. "If this legislation is signed into law, what employers are concerned about is the new verification system and the additional potential liability if, for some reason, there is a mistake in terms of compliance."

He said retailers generally view a guest worker program and a citizenship policy as "positive if they are done correctly." But he cautioned the entire framework could be significantly altered in Congress.

Organized labor gave mixed reactions to the proposal, ranging from outright opposition, in the case of the AFL-CIO, to cautious support, in the case of UNITE HERE.

"The [compromise deal] really addresses the number-one problem — a path to citizenship for 12 million workers — and that is a giant step forward," said Bruce Raynor, general president of UNITE HERE. "We've still got a long distance to go and the purpose of the Senate debate is about improving the bill."

Raynor said the proposal needs to be improved and pointed to the temporary guest worker program, about which he said the union was "unhappy."

"That would create a permanent underclass of immigrant workers with no rights primed to be exploited by unscrupulous employers," he said. "A better solution for new immigrants would be providing for the flow of future immigrants to come to the U.S. and achieve legalization and, ultimately, citizenship. The way the proposal works, they have no path to citizenship."

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