Better Any Immigration Bill Than None?

Posted May 18, 2007 at 6:38pm

The proposed immigration overhaul unveiled by an eclectic group of Senators last week left not one of the myriad stakeholders completely satisfied. But none is unhappy enough to walk away from the deal — yet, according to lobbyists and activists working the issue.

Among the most disappointed are firms in the high-tech sector. Companies such as Google Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. abhor the proposal to dole out visas — even the H-1B visas many high-tech companies rely upon to hire highly skilled workers — on a “merit-based” point system.

“We went into this … with the hope of changing what we saw was a broken system when it came to a highly skilled workers,” said Robert Hoffman, Oracle Corporation’s vice president of government affairs. “Now it looks like they are trying to impose a system that is even worse.”

Hoffman said Compete America, an organization representing some of the biggest and best-known corporations, will press on to get the provision changed during the Senate debate that starts this week.

Hoffman said the high-tech world had no problem with the version the Senate passed last year.

“That’s our goal, to get them to go back to the future, to get them into their DeLorean and make them go back to where they started,” Hoffman said, referencing the Michael J. Fox movie “Back to the Future.”

Since no one has seen the plan on paper yet, all the major players are taking a wait-and-see approach, said Marisa McNee, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, which represents scores of groups ranging from well-known activist organizations to the National Council of La Raza.

Leaders of major organizations in the coalition feel that passing some kind of legislation is so important that they cannot work against advancing this bill, even if it is imperfect in their eyes.

“The price of not moving forward is higher than the price in seeing it fail” as way to prevent unwanted regulations, said Kevin Appleby of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops.

Appleby said hard-core anti-immigration groups will likely try to kill the legislation, as might some activists groups that do not believe the bill goes far enough. But in the end, he predicted, “I think the middle will hold.”

The bishops, who “will be very active in contacting Members,” do not like the temporary-worker program, which they think will create a “subclass” of workers with fewer rights, Appleby said.

They also want the legalization process to be “workable and fair.” Additionally, they disapprove of the provisions requiring illegal immigrants to first return to their own countries and the one barring immigrants from bringing family members back to the United States with them.

Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said too much is at stake for everyone — lawmakers, President Bush and groups such as his — to leave the issue unresolved.

Bush needs the legislative victory, Democrats in Congress need to prove they can lead, and many of the Republicans opposed to the plan want action if only to get the issue off the table, he said.

“As much as we don’t want an unacceptable bill, we’re equally terrified of no bill,” said Sharry, whose organization represents unions, businesses, Latino groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Sharry said the situation is so fluid that coalitions like his could still fall apart.

At week’s end “we’ll probably have to make another gut-wrenching decision,” he said.

Ultimately, however, he predicts the country’s immigration laws will be changed.

“The American public wants this solved and inaction comes with a very high political price for every incumbent,” he said. Inaction would become “a symbol that politicians cannot solve problems.”

One major group, the AFL-CIO, is deeply concerned about the guest-worker program, but its president, John Sweeney, has not said the labor behemoth will try to block action.

“No one has drawn a line in the sand yet,” Sharry said.

“It’s like the National Basketball Association playoffs,” he said, describing the process. “You survive a series and you go, ‘my God, these guys are even better,’ and then you go another round.”

The House has not tackled immigration this year. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) laid down her marker Friday afternoon.

Like everyone working the issue, Pelosi said she has “serious concerns about some elements of this proposal,” according to her statement. But she concluded that a bill must pass.

“The need is urgent,” she said. “And the time is now.”