With Capitol Hill gearing up for a major overhaul to the nation's immigration system, lobbyists representing a wide range of businesses are preparing for the fight.
Farms and restaurants need more workers, for example, and Google Inc. and other technology companies want access to a pool of high-level scientists and engineers.
Now, after years of political stalemate on the issue, immigration has become a likely centerpiece of President Barack Obama's second term. Lobbyists see a renewed enthusiasm for reform from both parties and a rare opportunity to finally secure some long-awaited fixes for clients, from DirecTV to dairy farmers.
The White House and Washington lawmakers plan to push a comprehensive immigration reform bill during the next few months, starting with congressional hearings next month.
One challenge, even for U.S. Internet giants with massive in-house lobbying budgets like Facebook Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and eBay Inc., will be figuring out how to get individual immigration-related issues heard. Those companies and others formed the Internet Alliance last September, and have since spread their message that the economy is stifled without more temporary H-1B visas for high-skilled foreign workers.
This month, McDermott Will & Emery legislative affairs director W. Kam Quarles helped his clients organize the Agriculture Workforce Coalition. The group will speak for 11 agricultural associations on needed reforms, including the H-2A guest worker program that the industry finds cumbersome and costly to farm operators. Farmers say that not enough Americans want to take those farm worker jobs, but the guest worker program has too many bureaucratic stumbling blocks, such as the Department of Labor's inconsistent interpretation of rules.
"You've got so many people seeking attention and seeking some type of voice in this process that's why it's so important to form this coalition," Quarles said. "In order to get it right, you're dealing with some technical, complicated issues. Given where some of the politics have been in the past few years, you just didn't have that opportunity to have a serious discussion of these issues because there was so much emotion wrapped up in it."
But the atmosphere has changed since the presidential election, lobbyists say. Republicans adamantly against a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants a likely provision in any Obama administration proposal became more amenable to reform after resoundingly losing the Hispanic vote in the last presidential election. Some Republican lawmakers have taken a lead on the issue, such as Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who unveiled an immigration plan last week that the White House spokesman cited as cause to believe a bipartisan deal can be made.
While Obama has not yet publicly detailed a plan, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said this month that a comprehensive plan is needed. And Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) promised hearings on immigration next month. He avoided specifics, but hinted at reforms targeting H-1B visas by mentioning "innovating for technology companies," and H-2A visas by mentioning the "hardworking men and women who play vital roles supporting our farmers."
"We have to find a way through the partisan gridlock to enact meaningful change on immigration laws, and that should include a path for citizenship," Leahy said at Georgetown University Law Center last week. "I know I'm going to hear a lot of different views on this, but I hope that in the end we can honor those who came before us from distant lands in search of freedom and opportunity."
MOVING TOWARD COMPROMISE
During the past few years, reform proponents have faced tall hurdles in passing any immigration measures. In December, Senate Democrats killed off the Republican House-sponsored STEM Jobs Act to add 55,000 H-1B visas. It would have allowed technology companies to hire more foreign masters and doctoral graduates of American universities in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Businesses say there are not enough qualified workers for the technology industry, and the United States is deporting entrepreneurs who are creating jobs. But Democrats blocked the bill and the White House opposed it because it eliminated the diversity visa program for countries with low immigration rates.
That frustrated business groups like the giant Consumer Electronics Association, which have also moved toward compromise. The CEA lobbied last year for passage of the STEM Act without pairing it with any other immigration reforms. "What we're saying for the first time now is: uncle," CEA President Gary Shapiro said. "We are willing to support comprehensive reform as long as it covers strategic immigration."
Doing one comprehensive bill, instead of several bills as some Republicans are suggesting, will bring more voices to an already crowded table. In the past year, groups paid at least 21 law firms or Washington lobby shops to represent them on their narrow interest in immigration, at least in part, Senate records show.