By Wall Street Journal
WASHINGTON—Two House Republicans are working on an immigration bill that could disrupt the delicate deal struck between labor and business groups over how many visas to award to low-skilled guest workers.
GOP Reps. Ted Poe of Texas and Raul Labrador of Idaho may call for nearly twice the number of annual visas for low-skilled workers than the Senate included in its immigration bill, though they haven't yet settled on a number, two people familiar with drafts of the House bill say.
The proposal could provide somewhere near 400,000 annual visas for low-skilled immigrant workers, these people say. The sweeping immigration bill that passed the Senate in June created a new class of visas for low-skilled workers and increased the allotment of them annually, starting at 20,000 and maxing out at 220,000. Some businesses criticized that cap as too low.
Mr. Poe, in an interview this past week, said only that the cap in his bill hasn't been set but would "probably be higher" than in the Senate bill.
A higher cap could prove popular among House Republicans and would please many businesses that rely on low-skilled labor. "The House is looking at a little more practical program," said Shawn McBurney, senior vice president of governmental affairs for the American Hotel and Lodging Association.
The outlines of the emerging bill drew protests from the AFL-CIO. Labor unions want to limit visas for low-skilled workers, saying the foreign workers compete for jobs with U.S. workers and put downward pressure on wages.
Many businesses, by contrast, want no cap at all on the visas. "Ideally, there should be no cap. It should be driven by the market," Mr. McBurney said.
As senators wrote their immigration bill, they turned to the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to negotiate details of some of the visa programs, which were then incorporated in the legislation. The AFL-CIO says it accepted the visa program only as part of a broader bill that includes other union goals, such as opening a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million people now in the country illegally.
Labor leaders say the emerging Poe-Labrador bill is a potential threat to that compromise, and that they wouldn't accept the low-skilled-visa program as a stand-alone measure.
"We obviously think it's ridiculous that they would attempt to reopen a done deal," said AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser.
"We haven't seen it and have not taken a position yet," a spokeswoman for the Chamber of Commerce said Friday.
Some Senate Democrats are also nervous about picking apart the fragile deal. Worker visas are so sensitive an issue that their inclusion helped prompt the AFL-CIO to oppose the last big effort to rewrite immigration laws, in 2007.
"That's what derailed the bill the last time around," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, one of the four Democrats who helped write the bipartisan Senate bill. This year's effort was the fruit of long negotiations, he said. "I'm open to suggestions, but I think we struck the right balance."
A Republican member of the group that wrote the Senate bill, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, said he wouldn't "reflexively" oppose the House bill. The Senate plan "certainly didn't have everything I wanted, and my hope is that the House will come up with ideas that improve on ours," he said.
Mr. Poe said the driving philosophy behind the House bill is that the number of visas should be responsive to demands of the market.
"Sure, there's a cap, but we need to have a market-based [system], and some areas of the country need temporary workers in one area but not in others," Mr. Poe said. Under the Senate bill, the cap would be set at 20,000 in the first year, rising to 75,000 by the fourth year. Afterward, the number of annual visas would be based on economic factors, though the number couldn't rise above 220,000.
The construction industry may be poised for a win in the House proposal. While the Senate bill prohibits the construction industry from snapping up more than 15,000 low-skilled visas, the House legislation isn't expected to set caps for specific industries.
"It will not have anything that picks winners and losers for any industry, including in construction," said a person familiar with the draft.
Mr. Poe said the lawmakers had been thinking about how the bill could help industries such as construction. "We could use 15,000 [visas] the first day in Texas. We have that much demand for construction workers," he said.
The two lawmakers are discussing the bill with other Republicans, Democrats and industry, and plan to introduce it in the fall, when Congress returns from its recess.