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Surge of immigration lobbyists fueled by push for high-skilled foreign workers

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As the immigration reform bill has been negotiated in the Senate, the number of new lobbying registrations filed this year disclosing an interest in the issue has surpassed the number from all of 2012. Some organizations are hiring lobbyists for the first time while others have bolstered their Washington presence to influence the bill.

And the largest driving force behind the flood of lobbyists appears to be companies--especially in the tech sector--pushing for more temporary visas for high-skilled workers, a crucial part of the bill that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 13-5 vote Tuesday. The bill, which also provides a road map to citizenship for the nation's roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants, can now be considered by the full Senate after the Memorial Day recess.

There have already been 55 lobbyists hired whose clients want to influence immigration, according to Sunlight's Lobbying Registration Tracker. That surpasses the 54 registrations from all of 2011 and 42 new reports from 2012 that reported immigration as an issue.

April and May have been the most active months for new registrations, which lobbyists must file within 30 days after they begin lobbying for a client. In the less than two months since April began, 38 registrations have poured in.

Even though this surge only reflects newly hired lobbyists, there has also been an increase in the number of clients that are actively lobbying on immigration-- from 317 in 2011 to 354 in 2013, the Center for Responsive Politics reported. It is not possible to determine how much money is being spent lobbying on immigration legislation because firms are not required to disclose how much of their fees are generated by any single issue.

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Companies seeking more high-skilled foreign workers, led by the tech sector, are driving the April and May uptick. The sector has been increasing its Washington lobbying in recent years even as overall reported lobbying spending has decreased slightly. Of the 37 organizations that hired lobbyists for immigration reform in April and May, ten are focused on pushing for visas for highly-skilled workers, according to their lobbying reports and known views. That number is likely a low estimate, as other tech companies that want more visas for skilled workers, called H-1Bs, have also enlisted lobbyists in the past two months who have described their clients' interest more broadly. IBM, for example, lists among its issues "immigration reform," while Samsung Electronics International discloses "company related immigration issues."

The tech sector has already gotten its way, with the proposed legislation including an expanded number of H-1B visas, a visa program for entrepreneurs, and an easier pathway for foreign science and math graduates to get green cards.

But Tuesday, the tech sector did even better when the Judiciary panel approved a series of pro-industry amendments sponsored by its ally Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, whose vote was coveted. His amendments ease regulations on companies who want to hire workers under the H-1B program, overriding the original bill that included stricter requirements for a company to prove it attempted to hire a U.S. worker before a foreigner. For companies whose workforce is less than 15 percent foreign, the amendment lifts a requirement that they try to fill a job with a U.S. worker before hiring an H-1B visa holder.

The AFL-CIO, the nation's largest federation of unions, and a key player in crafting the principles behind the bill agreed to by the senators known as the "Gang of Eight," is opposed to the amendments, AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser said in an interview. But they passed, he said, thanks to the combination of corporate lobbying and the Senate Democrats' desire to have the bill clear the Judiciary Committee with overwhelming support.

Hauser said that, under the Hatch amendments, an American company can replace an American worker with a foreign worker at a lower wage who will also only be in the U.S. for a few years. 

The union still supports the broader bill but plans to reintroduce the "worker protections" that the amendments removed, Hauser said.

The tech industry group that has gotten the most attention for its lobbying on immigration is FWD.us, a well-funded coalition of tech executives including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that has paid for TV ads bolstering senators who back immigration reform.

But there are many others tech companies hiring lobbyists. Zynga, the online game company whose CEO is a major contributor to FWD.us, hired its own lobbyist, Jamie Hantman, a former legislative aide in the George W. Bush administration, to push immigration reform and other issues in April.

InSPIRE STEM USA, a coalition of businesses and education advocates, also picked up its first lobbying firm in April. Along with expanded HB-1 visas, the group is pushing for greater funding for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and training. So far it is getting its way -- the Judiciary Committee already agreed to an amendment sponsored by Hatch and Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Chris Coons, D-Del., to double STEM education and training funding.

TechServe alliance, Tata America and Lam Research Corporation also picked up new lobbying firms since April to advocate for expanded H-1B visas.

Since April, five organizations have also hired lobbyists to push for the expansion of another kind of visa known as EB-5, which allows rich foreign investors and their family members to obtain a green card. Two of the companies help foreign investors apply for visas -- U.S. Immigration Fund LLC and CanAm Enterprises. Another is the South Florida Investment Regional Center, one of the many government-approved "regional centers" that pools money from EB-5 investors. The companies are seeing positive result, as the panel approved an amendment to make the EB-5 program permanent and free up more visas for spouses and children of investors. It was sponsored by Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, I-Vt.

At least three of the new lobbying registrants are focused on other kinds of temporary visas -- for low-skilled workers in the farm and non-farm sectors. The new organizations include the H-2B Providers Coalition, which is focused on non-agricultural visas, the Florida Farm Bureau Federation and the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industry Association. 

 

Note, 2:57 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect that there are now 38 organizations that have hired lobbyists on immigration issues since April. 

(Photo credit: CBP Photography via Flickr)