Behind the scenes, business leaders press for immigration overhaul

Franco Ordonez

While the immigration debate has been put on the back burner in Washington, national and local business heavyweights have been working behind the scenes – and using their financial might – to press House Republicans to bring legislation overhauling the immigration system to a vote.

The well-organized groups are led by some of the biggest names in business, such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. They’ve set their sights on GOP lawmakers from Southern states like North Carolina, Texas and Florida, and have recruited local business leaders and chambers of commerce to deliver a unified message that immigration legislation is crucial to the success of local economies.

They see a potential window of opportunity opening at the end of the month to reignite talks. They’ve been quietly laying the groundwork for months, holding backroom meetings and round table discussions with interest groups, and sending lobbyists to lawmakers’ offices armed with the latest studies showing the potential impacts on farmers and manufacturing if an immigration overhaul stalls.

The high-wattage names involved go beyond Bloomberg and Zuckerberg. Partnership for a New American Economy, led by Bloomberg, also includes Steve Ballmer of Microsoft, Rupert Murdoch of News Corp., and Bill Marriott of Marriott hotels. Zuckerberg’s group,, includes Napster co-founder Sean Parker and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.

Zuckerberg told members of Congress recently that he plans to spend $50 million on advertisements supporting members of Congress who back an immigration overhaul and pressuring others who may be on the fence.

It’s part of a campaign blitz by supporters of a comprehensive immigration legislation launching this month that will include rallies and television spots and that will culminate with an Oct. 28 business summit in Washington, D.C., that is expected to attract hundreds of business leaders from around the country.

About 40 House Republicans have been identified as influential voices of the House’s conservative wing who can help convince the leadership to bring immigration legislation to a vote.

They are largely part of an increasingly influential freshman and sophomore class of House Republicans that has pushed toward more conservative positions. But they’re also seen as movable on immigration because they represent districts with large technology, agriculture and/or manufacturing sectors – industries solidly behind an overhaul of the system.

Those representatives include North Carolina Reps. Renee Ellmers, Richard Hudson and George Holding, Florida Rep. Steve Southerland and South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House’s immigration subcommittee.

Jeremy Robbins is a policy adviser for Bloomberg and director of Bloomberg’s Partnership for a New American Economy coalition. He said the group’s strategy for getting House leadership to move a bill forward is not to target the easiest votes, but the hardest ones. And those pushing against House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on many issues are these freshman and sophomore lawmakers who represent the conservative wing of the party.

“If you want to move Boehner, the way to do it is you move the people who he is being responsive too,” Robbins said.

If Ellmers is any indication, the strategy may be working. Ellmers, who’s in her second term and last year opposed President Barack Obama’s executive order blocking deportations of undocumented youth, sent a letter last month to House leadership in support of an immigration overhaul.

Doing nothing, she said, will cause economic harm to North Carolina’s farmers and its hospitality and high tech industries. She says this is not a so-called “path to citizenship,” buzzwords that those on the right associate with “amnesty.” But she also says that those who receive legal status should not be barred from ever being citizens.

“I’ll admit I’ve gotten misinformation, and a lot of it has been messaging and not being able to articulate what it is that we’re looking forward to,” she said in an interview. “Border security is paramount, but there is so much more to that.”

The immigration debate that raged over the summer fizzled as Congress became consumed with the crisis in Syria, a showdown over funding the government and the looming debt ceiling fight. But the persistent pressure by business leaders, and the responsiveness of Ellmers and other Republicans who have indicated new support for immigration legislation, is a sign that an overhaul still has a chance in the House.

On a panel at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Public Policy Conference with other members of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight,” who drafted their own comprehensive immigration bill, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pressed businesses to ramp up their lobbying of House members.

“Every time you see a business person large or small, ask them what they’ve done lately for comprehensive immigration reform,” McCain told the audience on Tuesday.

Those opposed to the Senate proposal pressed back, charging these business leaders with acting in opposition to what’s best for American workers. Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, one of the staunchest opponents to the Senate bill, said businesses are pushing a plan that would open the doors to more immigrant labor and make it even tougher for unemployed Americans to get back to work.

“This is the last thing we need in a time of low wages and high unemployment,” Sessions said. “The result would be a further lowering of the wages and job prospects for already-struggling workers. These groups are pushing their public officials to advance their agenda.”

The most contentious issue between Republicans and Democrats is the so-called pathway to citizenship for those who came here illegally. The Senate includes a pathway to citizenship in its bill, but many House Republicans see it as a form of amnesty.

“It goes to the root of their crime,” Holding said. “That’s why the punishment is appropriate that they should never become citizens.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who is also part of the Gang of Eight, encouraged House members to introduce a bill that would at least bring the House and Senate together in conference, where they could hash out a compromise.

But some conservative members do not want to vote on any immigration matter, fearing the final legislation worked out in conference could include a path to citizenship.

Hudson opposes a path to citizenship. He supports filling the needs of local farmers and businesses, but he questions whether legalization of the estimated 11 million undocumented people in the country should be considered before the borders are clearly secured.

He said there are “real fears” in the House that going to conference would lead to another fight over the path to citizenship. But Hudson added that the House leadership has assured members that, even if immigration legislation is passed, Boehner will not allow the measure to go to conference if a pathway to citizenship is on the table.

By Franco Ordonez
McClatchy Washington Bureau