Lindsey Graham: Guest-worker program could be roadblock

Liz Goodwin
The Ticket

Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Wednesday that creating a future source of temporary, low-skilled workers will most likely face more debate in Congress than any other part of an immigration reform bill.

"If I had to bet where this thing is going to run into a roadblock, it's not going to be at pathway to citizenship," Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said at Wednesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration. "Here's the friction point: Temporary workers are needed in the future."

Graham is one of eight senators who released a broad bipartisan blueprint for immigration reform last month. It proposes a gradual path to citizenship for most of the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants and would create a temporary guest-worker program so that employers have a future source of legal, low-skilled workers. Both provisions have attracted controversy in past attempts at reform: Some Republicans argue that legalization is "amnesty" that would encourage future illegal immigration while Democrats have traditionally been wary of guest-worker programs, arguing that employers will abuse the cheap source of labor.

Labor unions and business groups are currently negotiating over what a guest-worker program in immigration reform should look like.

Another potential flash point that came up in the Senate hearing was the Senate plan's emphasis on border security before citizenship, which differs from President Barack Obama's immigration blueprint. The senators do not want any of the nation's undocumented immigrants to receive permanent legal status until after the border has been certified as "secure" by a panel of experts and politicians.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a witness at the hearing, pushed back on the border security trigger provision on Wednesday. "There's a better way to look at it," Napolitano said, adding that all parts of immigration reform "have to work together simultaneously."

Immigrant rights groups have argued that the border trigger could be used to delay citizenship for illegal immigrants indefinitely.

Despite these differences, senators sounded optimistic about getting a draft of the bill done quickly.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat in the working group, said they are on track to get a draft done "in a very short period of time." The president is scheduled to meet with Schumer and other Senate Democrats involved in immigration reform this afternoon, according to a White House official.

Graham asked Napolitano, "Have you ever seen a better opportunity than the moment that exists today to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would prevent a third wave [of illegal immigration]?"

"No," Napolitano said. "This is the moment."

But earlier in the hearing, Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas who is not part of the immigration working group, reminded his colleagues that numerous reform proposals have failed in the past, including a 2005 bill he co-sponsored.

"We've been talking about immigration reform for a long time," he said. "This is like déjà vu for a lot of us."