Last updated: April 05. 2013 7:29AM - 714 Views

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Republicans and Democrats working on an immigration overhaul bill missed their goal of unveiling a draft by March. Now they hope to present a bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee by April 8, when they return from a two-week recess.

The so-called Gang of Eight in the U.S. Senate crafting a bill has hit another of the usual stumbling blocks — what to do about future legal flows of lower-skilled immigrants who traditionally fill jobs that native-born workers shun. The failure to address this issue in the 1986 immigration reform fueled new ranks of illegal migrants.

The “Gang” does agree on admitting more highly skilled immigrants and is close to consensus on much-needed agricultural workers, a big issue for California’s Central Valley.

But what about the equally important lower-skilled nonagricultural workers? In California and elsewhere there is strong demand for workers in landscaping, housekeeping, dishwashing, construction and services that don’t require high levels of education. These are the usual entry jobs that immigrants traditionally have filled in the United States.

But the current cap for these workers is totally unrealistic — set at 66,000 a year, a number that hasn’t changed since 1990. To create an immigration system to meet the needs of our country, Congress should allow enough lower-skilled workers to enter the country legally.

A historic deal between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO reached Friday would help, if members of Congress don’t quash it.

It doesn’t help that some lawmakers go out of their way to insult foreign workers, as U.S. Sen. Don Young, R-Alaska, did on a radio show last week. “My father had a ranch; we used to have 50 to 60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes,” he said, later claiming that he “meant no disrespect.”

Then a key Gang of Eight member, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was all too quick to say on Sunday that the business-labor compromise on future flows of lower-skilled workers was “premature.”

The proposal — based on a 2003 bill introduced by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas — would phase in up to 200,000 new “W” work visas by 2020. Most important, however, a new Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research would make adjustments each year based on labor shortages and unemployment numbers, not rely on static quotas.

Adjusting the proposed 200,000 cap should remain an issue for negotiation as a bill goes through the committee process — and should reflect the real range of numbers of lower-skilled foreign workers coming to fill U.S. jobs, from 165,000 at the height of the recession in 2011 to 700,000 at the height of the economic boom in 2007.

The business-labor compromise marks real progress if senators don’t use it as an opportunity to delay or derail the larger effort to fix our obsolete immigration system.

The Sacramento Bee

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