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Coalition behind immigration bill may be fragile

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka talks to reporters at the White House after a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and leaders from
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka talks to reporters at the White House after a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and leaders from

By Caren Bohan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The eight senators who crafted comprehensive legislation to overhaul the immigration system went to great lengths to balance the competing priorities of dozens of interest groups in an 844-page bill introduced on Wednesday in hopes it would improve the chances for passage of the bill.

The courting of immigrants rights groups, farmers, the Chamber of Commerce, the tech industry and the AFL-CIO labor organization has paid off so far, with many of these players issuing positive initial statements about the bill.

But many of the favorable comments have been accompanied by caveats and "yes, but" statements that illustrate the vulnerability of the bill, which must survive months of legislative scrutiny.

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, for example, praised the legislation in a press release but also promised that he would "work to correct" unspecified details that could cause "unintended, but serious harm to immigrant workers and the broader labor market."

Also praising the bill, with qualifications, was Thomas Donohue, president of the Chamber of Commerce, the business lobby. Donohue called the senators' work a "critical step toward a final law that will work for our economy and for our society" adding that the chamber will continue to push for its own changes to the legislation.

America's Voice, the most prominent advocacy organization backing reform, called the proposal a "breakthrough" but also said it too would seek improvements, including cutting back on border enforcement provisions and granting recognition to same-sex spouses applying for family visas.

The bill, sponsored by four Republicans and four Democrats dubbed the "Gang of Eight," was conceived as a pathway to legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. That is controversial enough, particularly among Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But it also creates an entirely new system designed to increase the flow of foreign workers for agriculture, construction and low-skilled jobs and to boost the supply of educated employees for America's tech sector. These provisions are coupled with protections, many objectionable to industry, intended to meet organized labor's concerns about cheap labor competing with U.S. citizens.

The intricate balancing act is as much a vulnerability as a strength. As the various groups and their lobbyists vie for small tweaks to the language, the changes taken together could cause the bill to unravel, as similar measures have in the past.

Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, director of social policy and politics at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank that supports immigration reform, said her biggest fear is the "death by a thousand cuts" that befell 2007 immigration legislation.

"I'm hopeful that advocates of reform don't want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good this time," she said. "And if the gang can hold together, despite pressure from the right and the left, and stay strong to fend off alterations to the core compromises in the bill, I think they can get this thing across the finish line."

The U.S. Chamber is one of many groups that want to see some fine-tuning of the language, although it did not refer to a specific problem in its statement on Wednesday.

"There is no doubt that there will be additional input and analysis through Senate hearings and amendments, and we look forward to being part of that needed process," Donohue said in the statement.

But changes made to the bill to accommodate Donohue's membership might not necessarily be welcomed by the AFL-CIO, which in March hammered out a deal with the chamber on the guest worker provision that was incorporated into the gang's draft.

While support from tech companies and the chamber will help the bill's prospects, business groups themselves are by no means unified over the bill.

The National Retail Federation, while calling comprehensive immigration reform "long overdue," raised concerns in a statement about "E-verify," the system for verifying the legal status of job applications that would be mandatory under the bill.

The American Civil Liberties Union, a staunch supporter of a pathway to citizenship, also has qualms about "E-verify." A headline on the ACLU's website Wednesday called "mandatory E-verify" a "giant plunge into a national I.D. system." The ACLU is also concerned about the border crackdown envisioned by the bill.

And construction firms are upset over what they see as a disappointingly low number of visas allowed under the bill for their sector, a provision urged by unions.

Geoff Burr, vice president of federal affairs for the Associated Builders and Contractors trade association said that while his group supports the senators' goals on immigration reform, it may decide to withhold its backing unless it can get changes.

"To be honest with you, I'm not sure, if this (bill) were the final product, where we would end up," Burr told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

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