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Chamber and 2 Unions Forge Alliance on Immigration Bill
Published: January 19, 2006

WASHINGTON, Jan. 18 - THE UNITED STATES CHAMBER of Commerce and two of the country's most powerful labor unions are joining forces to press Congress to pass an immigration bill that would legalize millions of illegal workers, labor and business leaders said this week.

The coalition will include the Service Employees International Union, which has 1.8 million members; the Laborers' International Union of North America, which has 400,000 members; and the chamber, which represents three million businesses.

The groups, which are expected to announce their alliance on Thursday, plan to lobby in Washington and across the country in hopes of influencing members of the Senate, who are expected to take up immigration legislation in coming weeks.

Business and labor officials, who are often at odds over employee legislation, have found common ground on this issue as immigrants have become a rapidly growing share of the workforce. About 11 million illegal immigrants are believed to be living in the country, and the groups are pushing for legislation that would allow them to live and work here legally.

But leaders of the alliance acknowledge that they face a tough fight.

The coalition remains divided over whether to support a broad guest worker plan that would allow hundreds of thousands of new arrivals to work in the United States as temporary employees. The chamber and the service employees' union support the plan, as outlined in a bill by Senators Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona. The laborers' union opposes it.

The A.F.L.-C.I.O. also opposes a broad guest worker plan, saying it would result in the disappearance of thousands of permanent jobs with benefits and would lead to the workers being exploited. Many conservatives, who oppose granting legal status to illegal immigrants, say they hope to scuttle the legislation as well.

Still, the coalition partners said they hoped to exert influence on the legislation under consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In December, the House passed a border security bill that would turn the millions of illegal immigrants living in this country into felons, ineligible for any legal status. Randel K. Johnson, the chamber's vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits, said the coalition hoped to pressure the Senate to take a different path.

"We think it's important to show that we have a united political front here," Mr. Johnson said. "The unions tend to bring the Democrats to the table, and we'll bring a good portion of the Republicans. We're standing here, joining forces to tell the Congress that they need to step up to the plate."

Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the service employees' union, said the groups also hoped to prod President Bush, who supports a guest worker plan, to push the legislation through Congress. "We're hoping the president takes some leadership on this issue, which he has not until now," Mr. Medina said.

The president of the laborers' union, Terence M. O'Sullivan, said he thought the coalition could play a powerful role, even if his union opposed the guest worker plan.

"We will not agree point on point on immigration reform," Mr. O'Sullivan said. "But the majority of the major components we do agree upon. And there's strength in numbers."

The two unions are members of a labor federation created last year, partly under the service employees' union's leadership, as a rival to the A.F.L.-C.I.O. The laborers' union is in both federations.

Officials at the A.F.L.-C.I.O. have already begun urging senators to oppose a guest worker plan. Ana Avendano, associate general counsel of the A.F.L.-C.I.O, criticized the service employees' union for supporting the plan.

"We're turning permanent jobs into jobs that are temporary, staffed by temporary workers," Ms. Avendano said of the guest worker proposal. "It's really troubling that any labor union is just sitting back and conceding that this is something that needs to happen."

Mr. Medina dismissed the criticism. He said officials hoped to improve the guest worker proposal, but in the meantime he said the McCain-Kennedy proposal offered the best hope for providing legal status to immigrants already here and to those who hope to come and work.

"Most times we're on opposite ends of the issue on Capitol Hill, but on this one we are in agreement," Mr. Medina said of the alliance. "We agree that to fix this immigration system that is completely broken we need to legalize the people who are here and find a legal way for workers to come in the future."

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