Sen. Jeff Sessions slams immigration pact supported by GOP House majority leader

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions slammed a vague bargain on immigration announced on Thursday by the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, even as the Republican House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, applauded it.

“The Chamber’s primary goal has never been to establish a lawful immigration system and secure our borders, but to get as much cheap labor as possible — regardless of how it impacts American workers, legal immigrants, and taxpayers in general,” said Sessions, who is the senior Republican on the Senate budget committee.

Sessions didn’t directly criticize Cantor, who announced his support for the AFL-CIO and the Chamber.

“I applaud the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO for coming together to find common ground in an effort to reform our broken immigration system,” Cantor said in a statement.

“Their goal of protecting American workers and ensuring we have the workforce we need to grow the economy and remain globally competitive is one I share. While we may not agree on every aspect, it is encouraging that two groups often on opposite sides of the aisle are serious about putting politics aside and finding solutions,” he added.

The White House also backed the vaguely worded bargain.

“This is yet another sign of progress, of bipartisanship, and we are encouraged by it,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday. “At the same time, the agreement you refer to is an agreement on principles, and we remain focused on encouraging the Senate to develop a comprehensive bill.”

The open breach between a top GOP senator, the GOP’s House majority leader and the Chamber of Commerce highlights the populist politics of the immigration dispute.

The most prominent immigration bill is being drafted by eight senators.It is being pushed by a broad alliance of business-backed Republicans, ethnic lobbies, progressives activists and newer, Democratic-aligned technology and consulting companies in Silicon Valley and New York.

For example, Cantors’s endorsement of the bargain was applauded by an immigration advocate at the Center for American Progress, a lobby group that works on behalf of postgraduate professionals.

But the bill is being carefully opposed by many Republicans and some Democrats, who say they represent Americans who don’t trust Washington to act in the public’s best interest.

Sessions, for example, slammed the deal as bad for Americans.

A program that invites guest-workers to compete for jobs in the United States “is certain to take jobs from American workers and depress wages,” said Sessions, who is widely regarded by progressives as a “right-winger.”

The apparent disagreement between Sessions and Cantor may only be tactical.

Republican leaders don’t want to strongly oppose the pending immigration deal, partly because they don’t want to be portrayed by Democratic legislators and reporters as hostile to Hispanic voters.

The GOP’s share of the Latino voted slipped slightly from 31 percent in 2008 to 27 percent in 2012. But the four-point drop was exacerbated by an increased Latino turnout that comprised 9 percent of the electorate. (ANN COULTER: Amnesty won’t turn Hispanics into Republicans)

Many GOP legislators want to pass a series of small-scale immigration reform measures that would weaken Latino support for Democratic politicians, without alienating the GOP’s base of middle class and working class white voters.

The Sessions-Cantor divergence may also be offset by the political fragility of the union-Chamber bargain.

The Feb. 21 bargain was announced shortly after media reports said the groups’ negotiators had deadlocked after months of closed door meetings.

“AFL-CIO/Chamber principles on imported labor just PR thing to reassure amnesty crowd that talks haven’t fallen apart,” said a tweet from Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

The Center is an immigration-reform group that is pushing to reduce annual immigration to 500,000 people. In January, the center funded a poll by a Rasmussen subsidiary which showed that 90 percent of union members said the reduction of illegal immigration was important to them, while only 9 percent thought it was not important. (RELATED: Union members sharply split on immigration)

Despite the Feb. 21 applause, the bargain is vague on critical issues.

“We have found common ground in several important areas, and have committed to continue to work together. … We are now in the middle – not the end – of this process, and we pledge to continue to work together,” said a statement from the unions and the chamber.

The details are critical, because they helped wreck previous attempts to institute guest-worker programs.

“First, American workers should have a first crack at available jobs,” says the bargain.

But that goal can’t easily be squared with the companies’ demand that foreign guest workers be allowed to apply for jobs.

“Second. … it is important that our laws permit businesses to hire foreign workers without having to go through a cumbersome and inefficient process,” says the deal.

Striving for market-style efficiency clashes with the unions’ demands for limits on companies’ use of guest workers.

“Third. … We agree that a professional bureau in a federal executive agency, with political independence analogous to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, should be established to inform Congress and the public about” companies’ employment needs and the availability of U.S. workers.

However, the agreement to create a bureau doesn’t mean the two parties agree on the actual rules for the bureau.

The draft Senate bill, if completed, would provide immediate work permits to at least 11 million illegal immigrants, and also invite the immigrants’ extended families and many new skilled and unskilled workers sought by industry.

The bill also includes a promise to beef up border security, and to restrict future “Visa overstays.” These “overstays” are people who do not leave after they arrive on short-term tourist visas. The overstays comprise roughly 40 percent of the illegal population.

The modest support for any bill that provides amnesty was illustrated by a new Bloomberg poll, published on Thursday.

Only 35 percent of 1,003 Americans said a new “path to citizenship” should be offered to illegal immigrants “who don’t have criminal records, have paid taxes, learn English and pay a fine.”

A draft immigration bill developed by the White House would offer citizenship to illegals who have committed crimes and don’t speak English.

The poll said that another 18 percent of Americans would agree to a law that provides the illegal with work permits, but not citizenship. But the draft Senate and White House bills insist that the 11 million — and their relatives — quickly be offered citizenship — which grants access to U.S. welfare and health programs, as well as the ballot box.

Another 18 percent say illegals could get work permits or citizenship, but only after “measurable improvements have been made in border security.” However, the White House and Senate bills do not include so-called “triggers” that would delay work permits until after security has been strengthened.

Twenty-three percent oppose any benefits for the illegal immigrants, said the poll, which complements earlier polls showing public skepticism towards amnesty proposals. (RELATED: Immigration group says polls on the subject are all wrong)

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