Key players in immigration debate have support of special interests


San Ysidro border crossing

President Obama’s State of the Union speech last night set the stage for today’s Senate hearing, where the Judiciary Committee is poised to take on comprehensive immigration reform, in an attempt to balance a path for legalization for the 11 million undocumented people presently in the country with the need to secure the U.S. border.

The post election number crunching made it imperative for Democrats and Republicans alike to work together bringing the immigration discussion back into the daylight after it’s been on the back burner since the last failed push in 2007. Late in January, a bipartisan group of Senators, nicknamed the “gang of eight,” unveiled an immigration reform plan that highlighted the need for a pathway to permanent residency for illegals and also to grant more work permits and green cards for highly skilled workers as a means to increasing entrepreneurship and creating jobs.

And like most other major legislation that makes it’s way in Washington, immigration reform is poised to hold the attention of special interest groups. Interests in three sectors as defined by the Center for Responsive Politics–tech companies, agribusiness and construction groups–will be watching the debate closely and have some clout in Congress. All are looking to immigration reform to allow them to hire more workers, ranging from very skilled computer programmers to farm hands to help harvest crops.

Political action committees, employees and their family members of interests in the three sectors have contributed more than $51 million over the years to lawmakers either on committees overseeing the reform process or closely involved with crafting legislation. That total includes contributions to members from the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the gang of eight.

At today’s hearing, lawmakers will hear from a range of witnesses who will address issues related to the proposal put forward by the gang of eight. They include Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who has spearheaded Obama’s first term vision on immigration. While Nepolitano was responsible for the increasing number of deportations of undocumented immigrants–1.6 million–in 2012, she was attacked for a directive asking border forces to concentrate on priority removals.  

More recently, she has said that the borders are safe and Republicans critical of border security were not considering the yearly increase in the numbers of people caught crossing the border and seizures of narcotics. In a recent visit to the border area Napolitano asserted that her administration had “deployed historic levels of personnel, technology and infrastructure to help secure the Southwest border.” Under the Senate plan unveiled by the gang of eight, the DHS chief would be the person to make a final call on border security before greenlighting a pathway to citizenship. 

Other witnesses include Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist who revealed he’s undocumented, policy expert Jessica Vaughn of the Center for Immigration Studies and Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza. Chris Crane, president of the National ICE Council, a union representing border control agents, will likely offer a different vision of the state of the border from Napolitano. Steve Case, an entrepreneur and founder of AOL who also served on Obama's recently dissolved Council of Jobs and Competitiveness, will focus on another reform proposal—-the temporary worker program.

Among their questioners will be four members of the “gang of eight,” who sit on Judiciary. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. crafted a 2010 bill appropriating money to DHS to better secure the borders. While a large chunk of Schumer’s cash comes from the financial industry, some $4.86 million comes from the three sectors watching the evolving immigration process closely. 

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a member of both the gang of eight and the Judiciary Committee, reached across to the aisle to work with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the committee, on an effort to reform the temporary visa system. Grassley, who's not part of the gang of eight, placed a hold on a bill to speed up the visa process and lift the cap on the number of people allowed into the country. The hold was later withdrawn. Both Grassley and Durbin have received close to a million from the tech industry.

On the Republican side, gang-of-eighters Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., each worked on immigration reform bills in the past. Despite indication from Republican rank and file that any provision to grant citizenship to undocumented people will not see the light of day, the pair, joined by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have indicated they believe the GOP is warming up to the idea and will come around. McCain received $17 million from the sectors most likely to be involved in the immigration talks, although a vast majority of the money came when he was running for President in 2008. Flake has received more than $1.2 million over the years from the industry and Graham received $2.36 million.

But how immigration reform plays out will have as much to do the 92 Senators not part of the gang of 8. The chair of the committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., will have a major hand in how the reform unfolds. Some 10 percent of his total campaign contributions have come from the tech industry. And Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., has led the critique of the Senate plan, questioning the validity of the proposal. He argues that rather than being a net economic benefit, giving legal standing to undocumented immigrants could put a strain on Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, potentially adding trillions in debt.

The limelight has also been on another gang of eight member the Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Tea Party favorite and one of the faces Republicans are showcasing to appeal to Latino voters. Rubio has voiced his favor for working across the aisle in achieving a middle ground between deporting undocumented immigrants and granting them absolute amnesty. Rubio proposed setting up a committee that would monitor and regulate border security, but his plan didn’t make it to the final proposal.

Among the other Democrats in the gang of eight, Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., have received large amounts of campaign cash from the tech companies. While Menendez got more than a million, Bennet who is still in his first term, has raised more than $878,000 from the sector. The tech sector spent $132 million lobbying Congress on a host of issues, including immigration for skilled workers, in  2012 and is pushing the expansion of the guest workers program.

Of course, the House of Representatives will have to sign off on any plan. The high tech, construction and agribusiness sectors have contributed much less (about $5 million) to members on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration that has been holding hearings on the issue. Debate in the House has also been more contentious.

At last week’s hearing, the panel's chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., went after San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro who said that the path to citizenship was a “compromise.” Gowdy retorted, “I'm curious, a compromise between what? Because I don't hear anyone advocating for full-fledged citizenship without background checks…So it's a compromise between what?"

Other lawmakers, including Rep. Spencer Baucus, R-Ala., have claimed it maybe easier to pass smaller pieces of legislation rather than a comprehensive bill, with the guest worker program being the first and easiest measure to pass. “It’s going to be a much easier lift to solve the problem of high-skilled workers," he said at the hearing.

As House leaders have pledged to have a bill on the table this week, the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, led by Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., will play a major role. As early as September 2012, Gutiérrezz predicted that if Obama got a second term, he would he would have to tackle immigration. Others on the caucus with some clout are Reps. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., and Rep. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho.