Big Labor and Big Business Have One Big Issue: Immigration Reform

Immigration reform has become the No. 1 policy priority at the AFL-CIO, a remarkable shift for the labor group that has in the past spent more effort trying to pass a health care law or destroying a proposal to privatize Social Security.

Immigration reform has also become a top priority at the Business Roundtable, which represents the largest U.S. corporations. The group previously has focused its attention on corporate tax reform and trade policy.

Welcome to the new reality. Immigration is where it’s at.

The Senate is expected to begin debating a sweeping reform bill sometime this spring that would legalize some 11 million unauthorized immigrants and create a new way for foreign workers to come into the country.

The legislation has a long way to go, but some observers think it may be the only substantive work Congress can accomplish this year. If it happens, millions of workers would be added to the tax base almost immediately. Wages would likely go up in sectors where employers rely on undocumented workers. Crooked employers that take advantage of illegal labor might find it more difficult to do so, creating a more competitive environment for the honest corporate brokers.

Given those stakes, perhaps it should be no surprise that this year marks the first time that the AFL-CIO and the Business Roundtable have devoted significant resources to immigration. But for each group, the involvement is historic. The Business Roundtable formed its first immigration committee in January.

AFL-CIO federations in 30 states have adopted resolutions cheering immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. Those resolutions represent 9 million workers from a variety of unions, signifying the unanimity among different trade groups in supporting an immigration overhaul. The union locals are expecting to contact all members of Congress during the two-week recess to tell them that immigration reform is important to them.

“There’s a pretty big cross section of the labor movement there. Twenty years ago, it would have been impossible,” said Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO's government affairs director.

This is a major shift from the last time immigration was moving in Congress in 2007. The AFL-CIO wasn’t among the active lobbying groups pushing for an overhaul because the federation opposed the bill’s guest-worker plan. The federation’s ugly split with the Service Employees International Union over the issue didn’t help matters. The SEIU was willing to accept a guest-worker program in exchange for legalization of undocumented workers. The AFL-CIO wasn’t.

Now, all the unions and most business groups are in agreement that there will be no new guest-worker programs in the immigration bill. Instead, they all support work visas that would seamlessly transition into green cards. The SEIU is weighing in during the congressional recess with a $300,000 ad buy on several cable news networks for a spot entitled “America” that promotes a path to citizenship that requires payment of back taxes and learning English, The Washington Post reported.

Work visas are still a touchy subject for Americans worried about their own employment. The AFL-CIO’s support should calm nerves in states — think North Dakota or Michigan — where there aren’t a lot of immigrants and people are extremely concerned about the economy and jobs.

“There are senators and representatives from both parties that have a history of anxiety about this issue. The labor movement will make a huge difference,” Samuel said.

The Business Roundtable is also diving in with an economic message. The chairman of its special committee on immigration, Motorola CEO Greg Brown, ran his first newspaper op-ed on Tuesday calling for a 360-degree solution on immigration that “will both strengthen national security and boost economic growth.”

The Business Roundtable’s position is remarkably similar to the AFL-CIO’s. Brown said immigration legislation should include clear standards for employers on how to check for work authorization, an efficient work-visa system that gives employers and foreign workers flexibility, and legal status for the 11 million undocumented workers who are already here.

“This newly legal workforce will be more mobile, able to move to different regions and jobs as the labor market demands. This new labor dynamism also will add to local economic growth, producing higher wages,” the op-ed said.