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Deal reached on low-skilled immigrant workers

WASHINGTON -- Big business and labor have struck a deal on a new low-skilled worker program, removing the biggest hurdle to completion of sweeping immigration legislation, a person with knowledge of the talks said Saturday.

The evolving package would allow perhaps 11 million illegal immigrants to eventually win U.S. citizenship.

The agreement was reached in a phone call late Friday night with AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, U.S. Chamber of Commerce head Tom Donohue, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who's been mediating the dispute.

The source said the deal resolves disagreements over wages for the new workers and which industries would be included. Those disputes had led talks to break down a week ago, throwing into doubt whether Schumer and seven other senators crafting a comprehensive bipartisan immigration bill would be able to complete their work.

The deal still requires assent by the seven other senators, including Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida, but that's expected to happen.

With the agreement in place, the senators are expected to unveil their legislation the week of April 8. Their proposal aims to secure the border, crack down on employers, improve legal immigration and create a 13-year pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants already here.

It's a major second-term priority of President Barack Obama and would usher in the most dramatic changes to the nation's faltering immigration system in more than two decades.

The AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce are longtime antagonists over temporary worker programs. They had been fighting over wages for tens of thousands of low-skilled workers who would be brought in under the new program to fill jobs in construction, hotels and resorts, nursing homes, restaurants, and other industries.

Under the agreement, a new "W" visa program would go into effect beginning April 1, 2015, according to another official involved with the talks who also spoke on condition of anonymity before a formal announcement.

In year one of the program, 20,000 workers would be allowed in; in year two, 35,000; in year three, 55,000; and in year four, 75,000.

Ultimately the program 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 pushed by the labor movement as an objective monitor of the market.

A "safety valve" would allow employers to exceed the cap if they can show need and pay premium wages, but any additional workers brought in would be subtracted from the following year's cap, the official said.

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.

The issue helped sink the last major attempt at immigration overhaul in 2007, which the AFL-CIO opposed partly because of temporary worker provisions.

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