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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.
The workers would be able to change jobs and could seek permanent residency. Under current temporary worker programs, workers can't move from employer to employer and have no path to permanent U.S. residence and citizenship.
The new visas would cover dozens of professions such as long-term care workers and hotel and hospitality employees. Currently there's no good way for employers to bring many such workers to the U.S.; an existing visa program for low-wage nonagricultural workers is capped at 66,000 per year and is supposed to apply only to seasonal or temporary jobs.
The Chamber of Commerce said workers would get paid actual wages paid to American workers or the prevailing wages for the industry they're working in, whichever is higher. The Labor Department determines prevailing wage based on rates prevailing in specific localities, so that it would vary from city to city.
The labor organization had accused the chamber of trying to pay workers in the new program poverty-level wages, something the chamber disputed.
There was also disagreement about how to deal with certain higher-skilled construction jobs, such as electricians and welders, and it appears those will be excluded from the deal, said Geoff Burr, vice president of federal affairs at Associated Builders and Contractors. Burr said his group opposes such an exclusion because, even though unemployment in the construction industry is high right now, at times when it is low there can be labor shortages in high-skilled trades and contractors want to be able to bring in foreign workers. But unions pressed for the exclusion, Burr said.
The low-skilled worker issue had loomed for weeks as perhaps the toughest matter to settle in monthslong closed-door talks on immigration among Schumer and seven other senators, including Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida. The issue helped sink the last major attempt at immigration reform in 2007, when the legislation foundered on the Senate floor after an amendment was added to end a temporary worker program after five years, threatening a key priority of the business community.
The amendment passed by just one vote, 49-48. President Barack Obama, a senator at the time, joined in the narrow majority voting to end the program after five years.
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