The one number that could kill immigration reform

Bipartisan \

(L-R) U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Marco Rubio (R-FL) during a news conference on a comprehensive immigration reform framework.

- Getty Images

Just weeks after the “Gang of 8” bi-partisan senators presented a blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform, nasty political storm clouds are forming over Washington.

Of course, it was to be expected that the anti-immigrant wing of the Republican Party, principally in the House of Representatives, would oppose any reform. Their position has been clear all along -- the warm embrace of Mitt Romney's “self-deportation” political-suicide speech during last year's election, while an obvious electoral loser of titanic proportions, continues to appeal to the hardliners beyond any strategic consequences to their party.

Supposedly offering Latino assent to these anti-immigrant politicos, Tea Party Rep. Raúl Labrador is leading the effort in the House to destroy immigration reform in 2013. Labrador is fetching for the Nativist wing of the GOP, perhaps hoping to position himself as a “good Hispanic” with appeal to the far-right wing of the GOP that dominates the Republican primaries.

Yet the political landscape was significantly rejiggered by the 2012 election. Unlike President Bush' s ill-fated 2007 immigration reform attempt, an effort torpedoed by Bush's own Republican allies in Congress, there is now a dawning realization among mainstream Republicans that passing comprehensive immigration reform this year is matter of institutional survival.

Long-term thinkers like South Carolina's Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Gov. Jeb Bush, two examples of GOP leaders who seek a smart, modern immigration strategy, can read the demographic tea leaves. 

As Graham put it, Republicans are “not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

And here come the storm clouds.  Beyond the Tea Partiers like Labrador, however, there is another challenge to immigration reform – the negotiation between Big Business and Big Labor over guest workers visas to be issued.

One of the key pillars of a new immigration system must be a temporary worker visa program.  American businesses across a variety of industries have used undocumented labor to control costs and maintain flexibility to increase or decrease their labor force as needed. Like it or not, all Americans, even Raúl Labrador, benefit from the sweat of these undocumented workers.

A temporary visa system would give both American companies and foreign workers the incentive -- and the threat of stiff penalties -- to only hire and work within the legal system. Coupled with a rational green card program, one that gives America the mechanism to Hoover up the best talent from across the globe, the undocumented worker problem would disappear once reform was enacted.

And in a rare occasion of cats and dogs making an alliance, both business and labor leaders announced a partnership in January to push for comprehensive immigration reform. This new alliance gave hope among reform supporters; the rupture between labor and business in 2007 was among the contributing factors to the collapse of President Bush's reform push.

So when recently the big labor unions AFL-CIO and SEIU and the US Chamber of Commerce jointly called for reform, a major impediment to a final deal on immigration was removed.

Or so it seemed.

Sources close to immigration reform negotiations in Congress confirmed to me their worries that Big Labor and Big Business will once again turn on each other and give anti-reformers, like Labrador, a cudgel with which to kill immigration reform once again.

The issue that may blow up the negotiations is straightforward: how many temporary worker visas to issue per year. For the Chamber of Commerce, the number of visas is driven by the projected labor need of its members, while for the AFL-CIO and SEIU unions, the imperative is to protect American workers from potentially overwhelming competition from temporary foreign workers.

And they both have a point. Neither side is making irrational demands. Yet, my sources confirm, their positions on the number of guest workers is far apart – and threatening the success of an immigration bill that both Big Business and Big Labor say they want.

Even as the negotiation grinds on in the marble halls of Congress, America’s fastest growing group of voters watches with a wary eye. As I've written on other occasions, immigration reform is a highly symbolic, emotional issue for American Latinos. 

Failure of reform this year will have a significant impact on the 2014 and 2016 elections. At the most basic level, Hispanics' anger with Mitt Romney's anti-immigrant campaign directly contributed to his defeat, and President Obama's re-election. 

Now these voters, like the majority of all Americans who support comprehensive immigration reform, want to see results.

So it all comes down to agreement on a number. To Big Business and Big Labor a simple message: Don't screw it up.