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Business and Labor Groups Split on Immigration Legislation


On Wednesdays, we focus on the workplace. Today, illegal workers.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Congress has been grappling with highly charged immigration legislation. The issue has sparked demonstrations across the country, and as NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports, it's also got business groups up in arms.


Back in December, the business-friendly Republican-controlled House of Representatives did something unusual: it passed a bill, an immigration bill, that business groups really did not like.

Mr. RANDY JOHNSON (Vice President, United States Chamber of Commerce): We were, yeah, we were shocked by it.

SCHALCH: Now, Randy Johnson, Vice President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is on Capital Hill to try to stop the House bill from becoming law. He's cooperating with immigration rights groups, even unions.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I've been doing this about, almost twenty years, and it's probably a first for me.

SCHALCH: Johnson says the House bill is too draconian. Employers would have to match future and current employees against a federal database to prove they're here legally. That's impractical and unfair, according to Jerry Howard, chief executive officer of the National Association of Homebuilders.

Mr. JERRY HOWARD (Chief Executive Officer, National Association of Homebuilders): Not only does it make small business people into unqualified police officers, it also makes them criminals if they can't be successful being an unqualified police officer. And that just doesn't make any sense to us.

SCHALCH: National Association of Manufacturers Vice President Sandy Boyd cites another worry. The verification process would be based on a small, voluntary pilot program that's riddled with problems.

Ms. SANDY BOYD (Vice President, National Association of Manufacturers): It has a 15 percent error rate now, and we certainly don't think that sanctions ought to be levied until we know we have a system that works.

SCHALCH: Business and labor groups also complained about the sanctions the House bill would level against undocumented workers. As AFL-CIO lobbyist Sonia Ramirez points out, they'd become aggravated felons.

Ms. SONIA RAMIREZ (Lobbyist, AFL-CIO): It's pretty unrealistic to say that we as a country are going to prosecute and criminalize 11 million people that are working, that are our neighbors, that, you know, care for our children, that are not a threat to us.

SCHALCH: Some Senators want to take a different tack, allowing undocumented workers to apply for work visas after paying back-taxes and penalties. Eventually, they could seek green cards and citizenship.

Ramirez says the AFL-CIO is worried about temporary work visas.

Ms. RAMIREZ: You are essentially creating a two-tiered workforce. You're creating a “temporary,” quote-unquote, workforce that would be more vulnerable to the exploitation of employers and your normal low-skilled, low-waged workers.

SCHALCH: She says that would make all workers more vulnerable.

Business groups disagree. They also hope the Senate will open the door wider for legal immigrants with technical skills and advanced degrees from U.S. Universities.

This is a top priority for the National Association of Manufacturers, according to Sandy Boyd.

Ms. BOYD: When you find somebody who's got the talent that you need in a particular specialty, with an advanced degree, you know, we ought to be stapling green cards to their diplomas, not sending them away.

SCHALCH: Boyd says she's not counting on anything at this point.

Many lawmakers' top priority right now is cracking down on illegal immigration.

Ms. BOYD: There's no question that what's pushing the bill right now in this very political election year already is the border security piece. And, you know, the real question, the real unknown, is, what else is possible? What else can be done?

Because, of course, no matter what happens with the Senate, the Senate still has to go to conference with the House. And the House is in a very different place on these issues.

SCHALCH: Still, she's hopeful that lawmakers will attack the problem of illegal immigration by making more immigration legal.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kathleen Schalch
Kathleen Schalch is a general assignment reporter on NPR's national desk. Her coverage can be heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.