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Immigration lobby begins to flex muscle

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This week, while much of Washington's attention is focused on the debates over gun control and Chuck Hagel's nomination as defense secretary, the pieces are beginning to move into place for another legislative battle that could make the other two look like a lobbying Little League (sorry, NRA).

What has all the earmarks of a well-orchestrated roll-out of the administration's immigration reform package began Sunday with a front page New York Times story. This is being followed up by an immigration event every day this week organized by proponents of more liberalized immigration laws:

  • Monday: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, an ally of President Barack Obama, is scheduled to speak on immigration reform at the National Press Club.
  • Tuesday: A bipartisan panel of House members will join the head of the Consumer Electronics Association to discuss immigration at an event sponsored by Politico.
  • Wednesday: The Evangelical Immigration Roundtable will hold a conference call to announce a new campaign to build support for immigration reform. 
  • Thursday: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Immigration Forum will hold a press conference to urge Congress to act on immigration.
  • Friday: The Democratic NDN and New Policy Institute will sponsor a discussion on challenges facing communities on the U.S.-Mexico border, including immigration, while the Latino Leaders Network hosts the nation's mayors -- in Washington for their annual conference -- for a feed at a downtown steakhouse.

The opposition will be represented too. Hours before Villaraigosa's speech Monday to the National Press Club,  Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican whom many immigrant rights advocates see as a saboteur of the president's plans, will be at the same venue to discuss  "Amnesties: Past, Present and Future," at an event sponsored by the conservative-leaning Center for Immigration Studies.  

The lineup signals the intensity, complexity and high political and financial stakes involved in the fight that's about to unfold over immigration.

Already, at least one super PAC has been formed to enter the fray, able to collect and spend money in unlimited amounts to run "issue" advertising -- or to target members of Congress. In late November, Republicans for Immigration Reform filed organizational papers with the Federal Election Commission. The group's treasurer, Charles Spies, was also the treasurer of Restore Our Future, the super PAC that raised $153 million -- more than was raised by any other super PAC during the 2012 campaign cycle -- to help GOP presidential candidate for Mitt Romney. Co-chairing the super PAC, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times: Carlos Gutierrez, who, while serviing as former president George W. Bush's Commerce Secretary, lobbied hard for the last comprehensive immigration bill, which was backed by Bush and Democratic congressional leaders but died in the Senate in 2007. In an interview published this week in the National Journal, Gutierrez said Republicans need to get behind immigration reform as a matter of political survival and decried the incremental approach favored by some in the GOP.

So the Chamber of Commerce, which spent millions to defeat Obama's Democratic congressional allies, and the folks behind Restore Our Future, who spent millions to defeat Obama, could end up on the same side as the president in this fight. And that's what's behind Obama's insistence on a "comprehensive" approach to immigration: It's a way to leverage the resources of interest groups that spent millions to defeat him in the last election -- as well as some that spent big to elect him -- to help win a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.

Major corporate interests running the gamut from agribusiness to IT to the hospitality industry want more liberalized immigration policies to accomodate "guest worker" employees. Companies running the gamut from Burger King to Microsoft and Apple to the National Hockey League are among those that have lobbied on immigration issues in the past, according to disclosure forms filed with Congress. Then there are the trade associations such as the Chamber, Technet, the National Restaurant Association, the American Hotel and Lodging Association, and the American Nursery and Landscape Association. A bill that yokes their goals to the one that many liberal Democrats want -- amnesty for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants -- gives the latter a much better chance of passage.

But if the immigration debate already has created a Republican schism, it also threatens to divide president's party.The labor movement, traditionally a key component of the Democratic coalition, has been of two minds about immigration reform. Unions whose members include large numbers of newly arrived immigrants, such as SEIU and UNITE, favor comprehensive immigration reform. In other unions, whose members feel at risk of being displaced by cheaper labor, feelings are more mixed. The association that represents many engineers in information technology also sees the effort to win more visas for foreign workers as a way to displace Americans with cheaper labor.

The fight is just beginning and heavy hitters on both sides are just starting to warm up. We'll be watching.