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Business, labor groups urge Senate to pass immigration bill

By Caren Bohan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Seeking to boost momentum for a broad immigration bill, the country's top manufacturing association and one of the largest labor unions joined forces on Wednesday to push Congress to pass the legislation.

In a letter to the Senate, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Service Employees International Union endorsed the bill that would give legal status to some 11 million undocumented immigrants and establish new guest worker programs for both high- and low-skilled foreign workers.

"We are cognizant that partisanship and politics can create paralyzing gridlock, but the Senate has put forward a thoughtful and bipartisan bill - a feat many thought was nearly impossible in recent years," the letter said.

"The NAM and SEIU believe in the future of the American economy and agree that immigration reform is a key component to its success."

The letter indicated a willingness by the business and labor groups to try to work out disagreements that arise during the immigration debate. Business-labor disputes helped to derail the last immigration reform effort in 2007 and have been a sticking point in the current debate.

During the crafting of the Senate bill by the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators a rift arose between business and labor over the guest worker program for low-skilled workers, but the two sides ultimately reached a deal. When the Senate Judiciary Committee debated the bill last month, another dispute flared over the visa program for high-tech workers.

Discussions about a partnership between NAM and SEIU, which represents 2.1 million members, including healthcare workers, teachers and janitors, have been going on for months, said Joe Trauger, vice president of human resources policy at NAM.

The letter comes as the Democratic-controlled Senate is seeking to pass the immigration bill before the July 4 holiday weekend, which would send the issue to the House of Representatives.

The bill, which is backed by President Barack Obama, faces its steepest challenge in the Republican-dominated House. Obama has made immigration reform a top priority of his second term in the White House.

"The message that (the letter) sends is that we have groups that have not traditionally worked together on issues in the past that are making a commitment to work together on this important issue," Trauger said.

As the House debates the details of provisions such as the guest worker programs, the discussion is likely to open the door to renewed business-labor disagreements.

Sylvia Ruiz, director of SEIU's Immigrant Justice Campaign, said the partnership with NAM could provide a forum for working out future disputes.

NAM, which represents small and large manufacturers in every industrial sector in all 50 U.S. states, is also using its lobbying muscle this week in a series of meetings on Capitol Hill.

About 500 of its member companies are in town for the organization's annual summit and have scheduled hundreds of meetings with House and Senate lawmakers and their staffs, with immigration reform one of the top agenda items.

(Reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing by Paul Simao)

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