Untangling the webs of immigration lobbying

by and

(Visualizations by Alexander Furnas and Amy Cesal)

As Congress inches toward major immigration legislation, a new Sunlight Foundation analysis (based on almost 8,000 lobbying reports) offers a comprehensive and interactive guide to the web of interests with something at stake.

As legislation continues to take shape, a wide range of sectors will continue flooding Congress with their lobbyists, trying to make sure that their particular concerns are fully addressed. These visualizations can help to better understand who these interests are, what they care about, and how intensely they are likely to lobby to get what they want.

Figure 1. Immigration Lobbying in Congress; click for interactive graphic Click for interactive version

Figure 1 gives us the big picture. The network connects lobbying interests with the specific immigration bills on which they’ve lobbied. The size of the circles represents the amount of lobbying activity. We’ve given a different color to each of 34 distinct sub-issues identified by a textual analysis of bill summaries (see our methodology section for more details).

The network can be viewed in three ways:

1. By zooming out and viewing it as a whole (Figure 1), we can see  five somewhat (though not entirely) distinct clusters, representing five major immigration lobbying hotspots in recent years.

2. By zooming in and looking at each of the hotspots in more detail (Clusters A-F), we see more messiness, representing the wider range of interests and sub-issues in each of the clusters.

3. Finally, and most importantly, by exploring our interactive graphic, you can investigate the links between every interest, issue and bill. There are thousands of links to uncover.

(To understand how we built this visualization, visit our methodology section at the end of this post.)

That immigration policy attracts a tangled web of lobbyists from a wide swath of the economy and dozens of advocacy interests will not be news to those who have followed the issue for years. After all, the last time Congress tried to pass immigration reform, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 stretched to 789 pages.

And in the five years (2008-2012) since the reform last died on the Senate floor, we count 6,712 quarterly lobbying reports filed by 678 lobbying organizations in 170 sectors mentioning 987 unique bills, associated with more than $1.5 billion in lobbying spending.

Let’s look at six identifiable clusters in a little more detail.


Cluster A: Agricultural /H-2A Visas­­­

Starting in the top left, the first cluster brings together lobbying on agricultural work visas. A series of bills have been introduced to streamline the H-2A agricultural worker program, based on compromises worked out over years between agricultural employers, farm worker unions, and key lawmakers. The bills have generally been introduced under the title “The AgJOBS Act.” As then-Senator Ken Salazar D-CO explained in 2007: “There are 567 organizations that have endorsed [the AgJOBS Act], from the Colorado Farm Bureau, to the Farmers Union, to every single agricultural organization in America. The leaders on AgJOBS in the Senate, Senator Feinstein and Senator Craig, have been eloquent in making their statements about the need for the agricultural community, farmers and ranchers, to be able to have a stable workforce. We need to stop the rotting of the vegetables and the fruits in California, in Colorado, and across this country. The only way we are going to be able to do that is if we have a stable workforce for agriculture.”

One other proposal that has been heavily lobbied – “The Dairy and Sheep H-2A Visa Enhancement Act” – would expand the H-2A visa program to also include sheepherders and dairy workers. Naturally, this has been of particular interest to the dairy industry, which relies on immigrant labor. As bill sponsor Rep. John McHugh (R-NY) told the House floor in 2009: “During the past decade, dairy farms throughout the nation have increasingly experienced difficulty in hiring local workers to meet their needs and, as a result, are ever more reliant upon immigrant labor. The tremendous uncertainty regarding that labor supply has a profound impact on their ability to plan for the future and make sound business decisions.”


Cluster B: Seasonal / H-2B Visas

Another cluster highlights massive lobbying in support of extending the H-2B visa worker exemption to allow non-agricultural seasonal businesses to hire immigrant workers. As Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), sponsor of the proposal, told the Senate floor in 2009, “Every member of the Senate who has heard from their constituents —whether they are seafood processors, landscapers, resorts, timber companies, fisheries, pool companies or carnivals – knows the urgency in their voices, knows the immediacy of the problem and knows that the Congress must act now to save these businesses. I urge my colleagues to join this effort, support the Save our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act, and push this Congress to fix the problem today.”

The lobbying interests most active on these issues have been hotels and motels, restaurants, florists and nursery services, forestry and forest products companies, and real estate agents.


Cluster C: High-skill visas, employee verification, other corporate concerns

The messiest cluster is in the middle, and it largely coalesces around two major lobbying interests: computer software and manufacturers, and the Chamber of Commerce. The concerns of these groups overlap. Part of their lobbying (particularly the tech companies) is aimed at high-skilled workers: retaining math and science Ph.D. graduates, enabling high-skilled immigration generally, and expanding H1.B and L.1 temporary visa programs. (H1-B visas allow skilled workers in mostly engineering, science, medicine, and finance to enter the U.S. for a limited period while L-1 visas allow employees of international companies to work in U.S. offices of the company for a limited period.)

The other major issue in this cluster is around the employee verification program, a web-based system that helps employers to check whether potential employees are in fact eligible to work in the United States. Both the Chamber of Commerce and the computer industry have lobbied heavily on this issue. This cluster also catches some concerns over homeland security, border enforcement, and travel visas, and brings in the building trade unions and the lodging and tourism sector.


Cluster D: Family issues

A smaller cluster on the right centers around advocacy on family-related issues, with the most lobbying centering on legislation known as the “Uniting American Families Act” which provides family immigration benefits for same-sex couples. As Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), one of the sponsors of the legislation put it on the Senate floor in 2012: “My legislation would grant same-sex binational couples the same immigration benefits provided to heterosexual couples. Passage of this important legislation would help put our country on par with over 25 other developed countries that value and respect human rights.” Lobbying interests in this space include gay and lesbian groups, liberal advocacy groups, and some religious organizations.

This issue and lobbying cluster also covers some issues related to child protection and asylum. The major interest lobbying on these issues are lawyers.


Cluster E: “Dream Act”, general path to citizenship, enforcement

The cluster at the bottom of the network centers primarily around a single piece of major legislation, The Dream Act, and the two sectors most interested in advancing its passage: minority and ethnic groups, and schools & colleges. The Dream Act would create a path to citizenship for young people brought to the U.S. as children who go to college or serve in the military.

This cluster also covers other primary lobbying concerns of minority and ethnic groups, including a set of tough-on-immigration enforcement and criminal justice-related bills, as well as some bills covering various path-to-citizenship issues.


Cluster F: Performing artist visas

Finally, there is one small cluster of lobbying that is on its own. Live theater, museums, bands, orchestras, and other artistic performance industries have lobbied for special visa exemptions for performing artists. The most active bill in this cluster is H.R. 1785 from the 1111th congress, the Arts Require Timely Service (ARTS) Act, which would require expedited processing of visas petitions filed by employers on behalf of individuals with extraordinary artistic ability.

As Senate bill sponsor Orrin Hatch (R-UT) told the Senate floor in 2009: “There is no doubt that nonprofit arts organizations across the country engage foreign guest artists in their orchestras, theatres, and dance and opera companies. In my home state of Utah, I am aware that many organizations that will benefit from passage of the ARTS Act, including Brigham Young University, Cache Valley Center for the Arts, The Orchestra of Southern Utah, University of Utah, Murray Symphony Orchestra, Salt Lake Symphony, and the Utah Shakespeare Festival, to name a few.”

This cluster would normally have been filtered according to the methodology we used (see below) but we left it in because it is good example of a specialty niche issue within the larger constellation of immigration lobbying.


Who lobbies the most?

Another way to slice the data is to look at which sectors are the most active, and on which issues. For full underlying data on all sectors and all issues, click here.

Table 1. 20 most active sectors and their issues

sector Total bill mentions Gini Top Issue #2 Issue
Minority/Ethnic Groups 760 0.549 Dream Act, 63 Reuniting Families, 40
Schools & colleges 624 0.866 Dream Act, 173 Science Tech workers, 19
Chambers of commerce 508 0.657 General employer responsibility, 68 E verify, 55
Computer software 420 0.763 Science Tech workers, 49 H1 B and L 1, 30
Milk & dairy producers 369 0.952 Agricultural Jobs, 132 H 2A Visas, 95
Computer manufacture & services 346 0.814 General employer responsibility, 63 E verify, 51
Building trades unions 320 0.816 Veterans affairs, 26 Border funding, 18
Farm organizations & cooperatives 263 0.959 Agricultural Jobs, 94 H 2A Visas, 59
Attorneys & law firms 240 0.738 Child Protection / Asylum, 42 Dream Act, 15
Computers, components & accessories 239 0.869 Science Tech workers, 45 High Skilled Immigration, 20
Lodging & tourism 193 0.885 Travel / extended stay, 51 Travel Visa, 27
Florists & Nursery Services 181 0.939 Seasonal businesses, 63 Agricultural Jobs, 19
Meat processing & products 176 0.888 E verify, 38 Border enforcement, 26
Human Rights 174 0.806 Dream Act, 19 Uniting Same-sex Families, 18
Democratic/Liberal 170 0.76 Dream Act, 29 Uniting Same-sex Families, 22
Restaurants & drinking establishments 153 0.901 Seasonal businesses, 27 General enforcement, 18
Hotels & motels 150 0.918 Seasonal businesses, 33 healthcare coverage, 17
Data processing & computer services 146 0.791 Homeland security, 16 Border funding, 12
Pro-Israel 114 0.818 Dream Act, 18 Reuniting Families, 11

(numbers for each issue represent bill mentions in issue area)

Table 1 gives us the sectors that have been most active on immigration, and the issues on which they’ve been the most active. Our measure of activity is lobbying bill mentions – that is, each time a sector mentions an immigration-related bill in a lobbying report, we count it as a bill mention.

The “Gini” coefficient is a measure how much each sector’s lobbying is concentrated on a narrow set of issues. The closer the Gini value is to 1.0, the more concentrated the lobbying. Not surprisingly, minority and ethnic groups have the most lobbying bill mentions in our data (760) and the lowest Gini coefficient (0.549), representing a very diverse set of issues on which they lobby.

Schools and Colleges are the second most active sector. They also show a tremendous interest in the Dream Act, which is not surprising since the Dream Act concerns higher education. Chambers of Commerce (primarily the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) have been particularly interested in lobbying on employer responsibility issues. Computer software companies have been lobbying heavily to get more high-skilled workers. And milk and dairy producers have been lobbying for reform to the agricultural visa programs.

Among unions, the building trades union has been the most active. It’s worth noting that among the top lobbying sectors, a few have very high Gini coefficients (e.g. farm organizations & cooperatives at 0.959, and milk & diary producers at 0.952), meaning that their lobbying is intensely concentrated on just a few bills. By contrast, groups like the Chamber of Commerce and minority and ethnic groups have a much broader issue profile in this space.


Most active issues

We can also slice our data based on which issues got the most bill mentions, which generates a statistical tie between agricultural jobs and the Dream Act, with issues related to permanent residences for math and science Ph.D.s, employer responsibility, and small and seasonal business issues coming in close behind.

Table 2. 20 most active issues and their top sectors

Issue Total Gini Top Sector #2 Sector
Agricultural Jobs 510 0.953 Milk & dairy producers, 132 Farm organizations & cooperatives, 94
Dream Act 504 0.945 Schools & colleges, 173 Minority/Ethnic Groups, 63
Science & Tech workers 372 0.902 Computer software, 49 Computers, components & accessories, 45
General employer responsibility 359 0.935 Chambers of commerce, 68 Computer manufacture & services, 63
Seasonal businesses 320 0.945 Florists & Nursery Services, 63 Hotels & motels, 33
Homeland security 263 0.902 Transportation, 31 Lodging & tourism, 23
General enforcement 247 0.921 Minority/Ethnic Groups, 38 Chambers of commerce, 19
H-2A Visas 241 0.963 Milk & dairy producers, 95 Farm organizations & cooperatives, 59
E-verify 233 0.964 Chambers of commerce, 55 Computer manufacture & services, 51
Border enforcement 231 0.882 Minority/Ethnic Groups, 33 Meat processing & products, 26
Defense funding 223 0.897 Computer manufacture & services, 23 Lodging & tourism, 20
H1-B and L-1 217 0.925 Computer software, 30 Electronics manufacturing & services, 27
Border funding 217 0.955 Chambers of commerce, 34 Computer software, 18
Uniting Same-sex Families 217 0.968 Gay & lesbian rights & issues, 55 Minority/Ethnic Groups, 35
High- Skilled Immigration 206 0.922 Computer software, 29 Computers, components & accessories, 20
Reuniting Families 169 0.954 Minority/Ethnic Groups, 40 Human Rights, 16
Criminal justice 158 0.957 Computer software, 19 Minority/Ethnic Groups, 13
Healthcare funding 151 0.926 Computer software, 23 Online computer services, 8
Travel / extended stay 144 0.959 Lodging & tourism, 51 Minority/Ethnic Groups, 18

(numbers for each sector represent bill mentions in that issue area)

Not surprisingly, agricultural jobs issues are lobbied on very heavily by the agricultural industries, especially the milk and dairy producers, the farm organizations and cooperatives, and the vegetable and fruit industries. The Dream Act is primarily lobbied on by universities, minority and ethnic groups, and Democratic-leaning non-profits. Getting more math and science Ph.D.s is of particular interest to the computer industry.

From the high Gini coefficients, we can tell that almost all of these issues are of interest to only a handful of sectors.



As comprehensive immigration goes forward, a wide range of lobbying sectors are going to be fighting to make sure that their particular concerns get included in the final reform (we count 170 sectors who have registered an interest since 2007).

Our analysis shows that the immigration debate is both structured and chaotic. When we zoom out to see the entire network in one glimpse (Figure 1) we can see five big clusters of activity on immigration. When we zoom in, we see much more messiness: lots of sectors, lots of bills, lots of interests, and many overlaps and tangles. In other words, a lot of clamoring is about to take place. We hope you will spend some time exploring our interactive graphic to see for yourself who cares about what and how much.



We began our analysis with all bills mentioned in lobbying disclosure forms under the category of immigration during the 109th – 112th congresses. We then excluded the top two percent of most lobbied bills – generally omnibus bills – leaving a corpus of more specific single-issue immigration reform bills. The remaining 915 bills were classified into sub-categories based on the text of bill summaries produced by the Congressional Research Service. To create issue categories we used Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA) — a form of natural language processing commonly used for text comparison — to measure the conceptual similarity of the bills. We then clustered the most similar bills together with hierarchical agglomerative clustering. This process ensured that the most conceptually similar bills – at least according to the content of their CRS summaries – were treated as belonging to similar issue areas, like H-2A visa reform, or the Dream Act, under the umbrella of immigration reform. We manually labeled the resulting 34 clusters based on their contents.

We then applied the labels (denoted by color) from this clustering to the bills in the network representation of lobbying activity shown above. The nodes in this bipartite network represent specific bills and the industries (based on Center for Responsive Politics’ industry classifications) that lobbied on them. The weighted directed edges are based on the number of lobbying reports filed by the given industry that mentioned the given bill. To highlight significant activity, we filtered the network visualization to show only the subgraph with a k-core of 3. The graph layout was done using the Gephi implementation of the OpenOrd algorithm, which employs aggressive edge-cutting to promote clustering.

Data sources: Influenceexplorer.com, Sunlight Foundation Congress API, opensecrets.org,

correction (5/17/13): We removed a reference to the number of lobbyists working on immigration. This story had linked to a piece from our reporting group, which made an incorrect assessment about the number of lobbyists. That piece has been updated.