The revival of the Senate's immigration legislation also resurrected a rare split inside organized labor.
The AFL-CIO formally came out against the bill Wednesday, reflecting the distaste among manufacturing unions and others whose members have been displaced by overseas competition and would have to compete with an influx of cheaper workers who don't have labor rights.
Embracing the bill are a couple of unions that cater to workers in the fast-growing service sector of the economy and also split from the AFL-CIO in 2005. They've seen their membership rosters swell with immigrants taking jobs in hotels and restaurants and as janitors.
The Senate legislation would legalize some 12 million unlawful immigrants and create a new temporary guest worker program wanted by employers in virtually all sectors of the economy. That's where the unions' interests diverge.
Earlier this month, the AFL-CIO and its allies succeeded in getting the Senate to limit the temporary worker program to only five years. The bill's proponents vowed to try and make it permanent again in later negotiations with the House if the bill makes it that far.
That victory, however, didn't placate labor leaders still opposed to the bill.
"This bill is far from the kind of comprehensive immigration reform that would improve the status quo for either U.S.-born or immigrant workers or their families and, in fact, it is likely to make matters much worse," said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard L. Trumka.
Temporary foreign workers
Several unions see a real threat to American workers under the Senate bill because temporary foreign workers would for the first time be able to hold non-seasonal jobs.
Ana Avendano, an AFL-CIO attorney and director of its immigrant worker program, said that would give employers like Wal-Mart and owners of meatpacking and poultry plants a lower-wage source of year-round workers that could be exploited.
On the other side are unions like the Service Employees International Union and UNITE HERE, an amalgamation of formerly separate unions representing hotel, restaurant, laundry and textile workers.
SEIU is now the fastest growing union in the country with more than 1.8 million members and says it represents more immigrants than any other union. UNITE HERE also has a large number of immigrants in its membership. Both see a recruiting target in those 12 million now-illegal immigrants.
They also are in favor of keeping temporary foreign worker programs, which are popular with immigrants, as long as the government ensures the workers aren't abused. A House plan that would allow temporary foreign workers to apply for a three-year visa which can be renewed for another three years is their preferred method.
Under a properly run temporary worker program, only about half of the foreigners coming to the United States under those conditions would want to stay permanently, SEIU Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina said.
"They would want to do it like my father used to do it. He used to come and work for a period of time and then go home," Medina said. "I think what you will wind up with a lot of people being truly temporary workers, because that's what they want to be."
Each side is using its influence in the Democrat-controlled Congress to push for a resolution in its favor.
Unions spent more than $66 million in the midterm election cycle, most of that money going to Democratic candidates. That makes them a player in the debate in the Senate and the House, although the differing opinions may blunt their impact.
Medina isn't surprised that all the unions aren't on the same page. "There's differences among labor just as there's differences among business" on the legislation, he said.
The Senate bill died earlier this month but was resurrected after pressure from President Bush, who has made it a top domestic priority. The bill is widely regarded as the last and best chance for Congress to take action on immigration _ possibly for years to come.
"It's time to create legal and fair channels for immigrants to come here to work in the future," Medina said. "And it's time to replace this cycle of border deaths and worker exploitation with a controlled system that works for America."
But there is disagreement even among the unions that broke away from the AFL-CIO to form the new coalition Change to Win.
SEIU is for a temporary foreign worker plan, while the Teamsters and the Laborers' International Union of North America _ also Change to Win members _ are not.
"LIUNA will not support the creation of a new guest worker program without serious reforms," president Terence M. O'Sullivan said, "most fundamentally a realistic path to citizenship that encourages immigrants to put down roots and stay to pursue the American dream."