WASHINGTON (AP) -- Business and labor groups announced agreement Thursday on the principles of a new system to bring lower-skilled workers to the U.S, a key priority for a comprehensive immigration bill.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO reached consensus after weeks of closed-doors negotiations they were conducting at the request of Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., two of the senators involved in crafting an immigration deal on Capitol Hill. Ensuring that future workers can come to the U.S. legally is expected to be a central element of the deal, which will also address border security, employer verification and a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
The principles announced Thursday include agreement on the need for a way to let businesses more easily hire foreign workers when Americans aren't available to fill jobs. This will require a new kind of worker visa program that does not keep all workers in a permanent temporary status and responds as the U.S. economy grows and shrinks, the groups said in a joint news release.
They also said they see the need for a new professional bureau housed within a federal executive agency and tasked with informing Congress and the public about labor market needs and shortages. That addresses a key demand from the labor side for a more transparent and data-driven process about business' needs for workers.
"We have found common ground in several important areas and have committed to continue to work together and with member of Congress to enact legislation that will solve our current problems in a lasting manner," the statement from the Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO said. "We are now in the middle - not the end - of this process."
Even so, Thursday's agreement represents a significant step in talks that some on Capitol Hill gave little chance of success.
"This is yet another sign of progress, of bipartisanship, and we are encouraged by it," White House press secretary Jay Carney said. Schumer called the announcement "a major step forward."
President Barack Obama has been criticized as caving in to organized labor for failing to include a temporary worker program in his own immigration blueprint. Carney would not say whether the White House supports a visa program for low-skill workers.
In a sign of the growing support for action on immigration, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., one of a number of Republicans who've recently softened their opposition to eventual citizenship for some illegal immigrants, issued a statement saying he was encouraged "that two groups often on opposite sides of the aisle are serious about putting politics aside and finding solutions."
Business and labor have long been at odds over any temporary worker program, with business groups wanting more workers and labor groups concerned about worker protections and that any large-scale program that could displace American workers. The issue helped sink the last congressional attempt at rewriting the nation's immigration laws, in 2007, which was partly why Schumer and Graham asked Chamber President Tom Donohue and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to try to forge an accord that Senate negotiators could include in legislation they hope to complete by next month.
Donohue and Trumka issued a joint statement that said, in part, "The fact that business and labor can come together to negotiate in good faith over contentious issues should be a signal to Congress and the American people that support for immigration reform is widespread and growing, and is important to our economy and our society."
The principles announced Thursday make clear that both sides have given ground. Business will get a temporary worker program, something labor long opposed, and labor will see creation of a government entity that describes labor market needs, instead of leaving that task to employers themselves.
Various thorny issues remain, including how many new visas would be provided under the new program and what kind of pay and protections workers would get.
The Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO have taken the lead in negotiations that have also included other business associations and labor unions. Senators and their aides are expected to play a larger role in the talks.
The U.S. already has several temporary worker programs, but they don't work well and experts say a large proportion of migrant workers in agricultural and other low-skill fields like landscaping or housekeeping are in the U.S. illegally.