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Lobbyists Stress Need for a 'Clean' Immigration Bill in Next Congress

Even as Congress is consumed with fiscal cliff negotiations, lobbyists and activists on all sides of the immigration debate are mobilizing their grass roots, staking out policy turf and gearing up for a huge push next year.

Advocates of overhauling the nation’s immigration laws say their messaging includes entreaties to Congress to keep any bill clean. The fear is the legislation could become a “Christmas tree,” larded up with enough pet projects and controversial amendments to sink it. Such a scenario is not lost on overhaul opponents, either.

“Anybody that comes forward with non- germane measures or something that is intended to delay and frustrate the process, we are going to keep our eyes on them,” said Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, which supports a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. “They’re buying themselves a lot of trouble in the next election if they stand in the way of real reform.”

A comprehensive rewrite of immigration laws appears to be one of the few opportunities for bipartisan comity in the next Congress. And it’s an issue that many Republicans say their party must take on, especially after Mitt Romney lost the Latino vote by a huge margin.

Medina said his outreach to the Latino community is full time — with ongoing operations in such states as Colorado, Nevada, Florida, Texas and California. The upcoming campaign will include rallies, one-on-one meetings with members of Congress and more specifics that will be announced within 45 days, he said.

Advocates from different sides of the issue agree that an immigration rewrite will likely be a Senate-driven process requiring the chamber’s leaders to devise a legislative framework and stick to it. Senators such as Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrat Charles E. Schumer of New York are among the players that K Street plans to court.

“Managers of the legislation on both sides of the aisle in both chambers will be ... keeping a wary eye out for extraneous amendments that could potentially bring the bill down,” said Chuck Merin, a veteran lobbyist with Prime Policy Group whose restaurant and travel clients have a stake in the outcome.

The starting point should be finding a path to citizenship for undocumented workers already here, according to many rewrite advocates such as Medina. Though some Republicans think that could be a nonstarter, pressure from the evangelical community could yet garner GOP support.

Randy Johnson, who handles immigration for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is busy laying the groundwork with the business group’s members around the country. “I’ve been doing this over a decade, and I feel more optimistic now than I ever have,” he said. “You reap what you sow.”

The group supports increased border security, a civil fine for those who entered the country illegally and tougher penalties for businesses that hire undocumented employees. Johnson said employers need more temporary workers to fill slots.

But Julie Kirchner, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which strongly opposes citizenship for illegal immigrants, isn’t buying Johnson’s message. With unemployment at roughly 8 percent, she said, finding workers isn’t the problem. And FAIR activists are making personal calls to their networks urging voters to press their case with lawmakers.

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