WASHINGTON -- Business leaders and labor union officials are delving into high-stakes negotiations over a particularly contentious element of immigration reform -- a guest worker program to ensure future immigrants come here legally.
The issue has traditionally divided labor and business. Labor groups have looked askance on bringing in numerous low-wage workers, while that's an outcome businesses have favored.
The Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO have been tasked by Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York with reaching a deal, within weeks, that Schumer and a bipartisan Senate group on immigration could incorporate into legislation now taking shape, officials say.
Both sides appear hopeful, although Schumer and others say the issue scuttled the last attempt at a comprehensive overhaul of immigration law in 2007.
The guest worker issue has emerged as a split between the Senate negotiating group and President Barack Obama, who omitted any such program from his immigration proposals, drawing criticism from Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a key negotiator on the Republican side. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama wants to ensure that any such program protects workers and "is actually based on data-driven workforce demands, rather than political whim."
Labor and business leaders were to meet with Obama at the White House on Tuesday in separate sessions to discuss immigration reform and how it fits into the broader economic picture.
Officials on both sides of the guest worker negotiations are hopeful of a positive result, partly because all involved agree on the necessity of addressing what's called "future flow" -- the influx of migrants to the U.S. that's sure to come whether or not Congress passes an immigration bill.
If Congress does act to provide a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in this country, it's just as important to deal with future immigration, advocates say. Otherwise, some time from now the country will once again find itself home to many more illegal immigrants.
"We're at a point where we have to take that issue really seriously and think about what kind of a system do we want to have in place so that 10 years from now, 15 years from now, we're not in the same situation," said Ana Avendano, assistant to the AFL-CIO president for immigration and community action.
The Chamber of Commerce "views the existence of a temporary worker program as vital to a comprehensive immigration bill," spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes said in a statement.
A major criticism of the 1986 immigration law signed by President Ronald Reagan, which offered legalization to some 3 million illegal immigrants, was that it did not deal with the issue of future immigration -- allowing today's problems to emerge.
The U.S. does have several temporary worker programs already, but they're viewed as cumbersome and outdated, and experts say the majority of migrant workers in agricultural and other low-skill fields like landscaping or housekeeping are illegal.
For business and labor, the question is how to come to an agreement on how many workers to let in and under what circumstances, how much they would be paid, and whether and how they would be able to attain eventual permanent residency, the critical step toward citizenship.
"Few aspects of immigration law are so divisive in terms of where the two sides stand," said Demetrios Papademetriou, head of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
That institute and others have proposed creation of a permanent commission that would make recommendations about where and when workers are needed, an idea said to be under consideration as the business and labor groups negotiate.
The bipartisan Senate group has outlined parameters that would allow employers to hire immigrants if they could show they couldn't find an American for the job, and would respond to economic conditions by allowing more immigrants into the country at times of low unemployment, and fewer when unemployment is high.