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Business, labor call for legalizing undocumented workers

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. labor and business joined forces Friday to urge Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform that would legalize the status of millions of undocumented workers, arguing the economy needs them and the current system is not working.

"I think no one can credibly dispute that the current system has failed," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It encourages manipulation by unscrupulous employers who hide behind it to exploit and intimidate workers. It has not deterred the flow of undocumented workers into the United States."

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue told the panel the need for immigrant workers will grow substantially as the U.S. economy expands and the baby boom generation retires over the next 30 years.

He told the panel that those forces will combine to create a future worker shortage that "if left unchecked will cripple American business, especially small ones, and severely impede economic growth."

Donohue said that according to government data, by 2008 the U.S. economy will have some 161 million jobs but only 154 million workers to fill them. The biggest need will be in the low-wage, low-skill jobs.

Immigration was at the center of discussions this week between President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, who urged U.S. lawmakers in a speech to a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday to legalize the status of some 3 million undocumented Mexican workers by the end of the year.

Congressional Democrats have said they will push for a broad immigration overhaul that would legalize millions of undocumented workers of all nationalities, not just Mexicans.

But broad amnesty faces strong opposition from conservative Republicans who argue it is unfair to those immigrants who patiently go through the legal process to become residents.

The White House opposes blanket amnesty and has talked about a guest worker program.

Donohue said his business group would support a new guest worker program as a transition to more comprehensive immigration change. But Sweeney said that before consideration is given to a new guest worker program, those already living, working and paying taxes in the United States should be given permanent legal status.

He said any new guest worker program should provide the same rights as U.S. workers, including the right to change jobs, and include a path to permanent resident status.

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