On Immigration, Businesses Band With Rivals

Posted April 27, 2010 at 7:02pm

Business groups, which have clashed with Democrats over everything from health care to Wall Street reform, have been working quietly with Congressional leaders and another one of their typical opponents — unions — to seek an immigration overhaul.

For months, organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association and the National Association of Home Builders have been engaged in regular meetings with labor unions and key Senate staffers to figure out how to revamp the nation’s visa system to ensure a future flow of legal immigrants who are able to work in this country.

Such a provision would be a key part of a comprehensive immigration package outlined by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Their as-yet-unveiled bill would deal with the politically charged issue of illegal immigration.

“No one has more of a stake in fixing the system than businesses,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, which is composed of state employers and trade associations.

But Jacoby, who has participated in the talks on immigration with Schumer and Graham staffers, also said there is wariness in the business community about how sincere the administration is in promoting immigration this year.

Some worry that the recent push is mostly posturing so the Democrats can energize Hispanic voters for the midterm elections. They also fear that lack of bipartisan participation will jeopardize the latest initiative.

“There is concern this is not a serious effort,” Jacoby said. “But if it is serious, we will be there participating.”

The issue has rocketed to the top of the national agenda in recent days with the approval of tough measures by Arizona’s GOP-dominated Legislature that give law enforcement officials in the state expanded powers to stop and arrest illegal immigrants.

The new law, which was signed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) last week, triggered sharp criticism from Hispanic groups and President Barack Obama, who called the measure misguided and urged Congress to address comprehensive immigration reform.

However, the pledge by Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to tackle the complex issue elicited a stinging rebuke from Graham. The South Carolina Republican accused Reid of engaging in a “phony political effort” on immigration that would threaten the success of a climate change measure that Graham was also working on with Democratic Senators.

Prospects for the immigration measure appeared to dim Tuesday as Reid said he would take up climate change legislation first and Graham said there was no hope of passing broad immigration changes this year.

NAHB President and CEO Jerry Howard said that while his group had been “very engaged” in the talks, he feared that if Graham “isn’t in the room” for the negotiations on the bill, “the prospects for it going anywhere are significantly diminished.” Howard said there must be Republicans or conservative, business-oriented Democrats involved.

As of Tuesday afternoon, it was unclear whether the group would meet this week to discuss the immigration issue, participants said.

With all the political fireworks, business groups said they want to make sure the talks on immigration lead to legislation that has a realistic chance of passage.

“We want a bill that is good policy that will become enacted,” said Randy Johnson, U.S. Chamber of Commerce senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits.

On its website, the chamber lists immigration as one of its priorities for the 111th Congress and says the organization will “continue to push for comprehensive immigration reform that increases security.”

The chamber also supports the creation of “a carefully monitored guest or essential worker program to fill the growing gaps in American’s workforce.”

The chamber backed immigration reform the last time the issue came up, in 2007, when President George W. Bush endorsed Congressional efforts to approve a comprehensive bill. However, that bill, co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), died in part because of strong opposition from conservative Republicans, who were suspicious of efforts to create a temporary-worker program for undocumented immigrants and establish a path to citizenship.

The failure of the measure highlighted the rift in the Republican Party between its business wing, concerned with filling jobs, and more populist elements within the party that fear illegal immigrants are overrunning their communities.

Anti-immigration groups argue businesses support some of the immigration reform provisions simply because it helps their bottom lines.

“The goal for big business is the minimal amount of hassle to get cheap labor,” said Julie Kirchner, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which is focused on stopping illegal immigration and increasing border security.

Howard at NAHB, however, said his group has a vested interest in immigration laws since immigrants have historically been the backbone of the construction industry, from the Irish workers of the past century to the current Hispanic employees.

When the economy was booming, he said, “we couldn’t get a lot of people to take construction jobs.”

On the other end of the economic spectrum, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Manufacturers said immigration reform is also needed to ensure that the U.S. retains skilled workers in a global economy.

The manufacturers association has been focusing on increasing visas for the large number of foreign-born college graduates in specialties such as science and technology.

“Manufacturers often do not have access to these potential workers because of outdated immigration laws,” NAM spokeswoman Erin Streeter said.

Streeter added that her group wants to see the green card system simplified and a more efficient way for employers to verify if their employees are legal.

Within the Democratic Party, organized labor has in the past expressed concern that illegal immigrants drive down wages. However, both the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO have participated in the talks with business on the visa program for future workers.

“There is pretty much a united sense that you got to fix this,” said Sam Medina, executive vice president of the SEIU. Medina said the common ground between the unions and businesses on immigration were “very unique.”

“No other issue unites us like this one,” he said. Medina said the groups were close to an agreement on the visa issue. But one business lobbyist said privately that they were not close enough to the point of drafting legislation, but were holding conversations at the “30,000-foot level.”

As business and union groups work behind the scenes, other immigration reform advocates have been working more publicly to drum up support, such as the recent large rally promoted by Hispanic groups in Washington.

“I think there has been a tremendous amount of organizing,” said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns for the National Council of La Raza.

She said the passage of the Arizona law “has become a lightning rod and watershed moment” for those in the Hispanic community seeking immigration reform.

She said the effort was deeper and broader than in 2007, with more events planned and a phone campaign to Members of Congress under way. At the same time, Martinez De Castro acknowledged that pledges to move ahead with immigration reform may involve some political posturing.

“After all, this is Washington,” she said.