WASHINGTON (AP) — Reports that U.S. lawmakers have reached an immigration reform deal are premature, one senator warned as a bipartisan group tried to calm expectations of agreement on one of the country's most complicated issues.
A breakthrough came over the weekend as big business and labor reached agreement that would allow tens of thousands of low-skilled workers into the country to fill jobs in construction, restaurants and hotels.
But despite the unusual deal between the AFL-CIO labor federation and the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the group of eight senators working to draft legislation still hasn't addressed the subject of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S.
"Reports that the bipartisan group of eight senators have agreed on a legislative proposal are premature," Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican with the group, said Sunday.
Immigration reform is a major second-term priority of President Barack Obama, and a deal would bring the most dramatic changes to the famously snarled U.S. immigration system in more than two decades. Those changes are expected to include a pathway to citizenship for the millions in the country illegally.
"There is no doubt in my mind that he wants to pass comprehensive immigration reform," David Axelrod, a longtime political confidant of Obama, said Sunday.
In a deeply divided Congress, immigration reform has emerged as the issue mostly likely to result in legislation that can be passed by both the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-led House of Representatives.
Republicans have seized on immigration as a key issue after badly losing the Hispanic vote in last year's presidential election, where Obama received about 70 percent of the Latino vote. With Latinos making up a rapidly growing segment of the electorate, many Republicans have backed off their formerly tough stance and become more receptive to immigration reform. They fear their aging, largely white party might become uncompetitive in national elections.
One key part of an immigration deal for Republicans is border security.
Rubio, a Cuban-American, is weighing a presidential bid in 2016. Lawmakers will be closely watching any immigration deal for his approval.
Even if the Senate approves an immigration reform measure, it still faces a tough road in the House of Representatives. Republican Rep. Peter King, the former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, was skeptical about any prospects for a deal.
"Eight guys in a room saying the border is going to be secure is not enough," King said.
The immigration measure under discussion also would crack down on employers of illegal immigrants, improve legal immigration and create a 13-year pathway to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants already here.
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake warned the negotiations were not complete despite the truce between labor and business.
Big labor and big business had been at a standoff over wages for low-skilled workers and which industries would be included.
The new "W Visa" program they agreed on would be capped at 200,000 workers a year, but the number of visas would fluctuate, depending on unemployment rates, job openings, employer demand and data collected by a new federal bureau being pushed by the labor movement as an objective monitor of the market, according to an official involved with the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement.
The workers could move from employer to employer and would be able to petition for permanent residency and ultimately seek U.S. citizenship. Neither is possible for temporary workers now.
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott and Erica Werner contributed to this report.