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.
For example, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld received $120,000 in 2012 from the Association to Invest in the USA, which wants to make permanent the EB-5 visa. That program, which allows foreigners to invest capital in American businesses in exchange for a green card, will expire in 2015.
Venable reported $90,000 of lobbying work from hotel chains Marriott International Inc. and Hilton Worldwide Inc. in the last three months of 2012 for the Visa Waiver Program reform, which allows citizens of selected countries to come to the United States for three months. Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck registered to lobby for McDonald’s Corp. restaurants in October, listing immigration as one of the issues. Brownstein also reported $230,000 in 2012 for EB-5 visa issues from CIM Group Inc., a real estate investment firm.
A KEY ISSUE
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is pushing for immigration reforms as well, working to build a coalition with labor unions, faith organizations, ethnic groups and law enforcement. Chamber President Tom Donohue said in a “State of the American Business” address January 10 that the reforms should include securing the borders and a workable, reliable national employee-verification system.
The chamber’s main lobbyist on the issue, Randy Johnson, said a bill would most likely start in the Senate. “The question will be: Will the House move on something that goes beyond enforcement that can be conferenced with a Senate bill?” he said.
Johnson said the tenor of his discussions on the Hill make him optimistic after a decade of working on immigration reforms.
“Key people in the House realize this is a key issue,” Johnson said. “The election’s part of it. I think there’s a sense of let’s get this done and get it behind us.”
The comprehensive approach to immigration reform is akin to tax-code reform in terms of the dozens and dozens of industries affected, said Robert Raben, president of the Raben Group, which lobbies for the National Immigration Forum. Democrats have committed to move on the issue, which will in turn attract more lobbyists, he said.
Most companies and policy groups have been pushing for reforms for years, and already have a long-standing lobbying team in place, Raben said.
“Each [group] will have to have appropriate eyes and ears as this moves forward,” Raben said. “Nobody has the crystal ball to see what the package will look like two to five months from now.”
Todd Ruger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.