Lobbyists rush to shape immigration deal

Lobbyists are elbowing into the talks over immigration reform to ensure they aren’t left out in the cold when lawmakers move forward with legislation.

Silicon Valley, the agriculture and hospitality sectors, and gay and lesbian groups are among the throng of outside interests looking to keep their favored programs and provisions in the mix.

The burst of activity on immigration has groups rushing to get their voices heard. Coalitions are springing back to life or forming anew in hopes of securing changes to the immigration system.

The tech industry, in particular, is bullish about the chances for a long-sought overhaul of the visa program for high-skilled workers.

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“Given everything we have seen, this year presents the best opportunity since 2007 to get the kind of reforms we need for our economy,” said Robert Hoffman, senior vice president of government relations for the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI). “It’s already being incredibly lobbied.” 

In the House, lawmakers from both parties are in secretive meetings to write a bill, while a bipartisan group of eight Senators is trying to turn principles for reform into legislative language. Judiciary committees in both chambers have scheduled hearings to discuss immigration as well.

That has led to heavy foot traffic in those offices on Capitol Hill, with lobbyists making the rounds to push proposals for their clients.

“Every one of those coalitions are lobbying those eight senators as well as members of the Judiciary Committee because they are going to get the first bite of the apple at a final bill,” Hoffman said.

One of the most controversial issues in the immigration overhaul is the status of same-sex partners.

“Our goal is when the bill is written, it includes our families,” said Steve Ralls, communications director for Immigration Equality, which is among several gay rights groups working to include a measure in the final bill that would give U.S. citizens the right to seek a visa for their same-sex partner to stay in the country. 

The likely vehicle for that policy change — known as the Uniting American Families Act — is expected to be reintroduced in the House and the Senate this year, according to advocates.

Ralls’s group is meeting with lawmakers about the bill and working to gather as many co-sponsors as possible. The Immigration Equality Action Fund, an affiliated 501(c)(4) nonprofit, has been organizing phone calls to the White House and senators in support of including same-sex families in a final immigration reform bill.

President Obama has called for same-sex families to be treated the same as heterosexual families during the immigration process, but the senators’ principles for reform did not address the issue.

“Since it looks like the Senate will move first on a bill, we are making sure our supporters let senators know to include us in their bill,” Ralls said.

Business, meanwhile, is hoping the final bill will bolster their workforce by making adjustments to the programs for visas and guest workers.

Several lobbyists are trying to rally support for a proposal would allow the number of visas to fluctuate in response to market demand, rather than being limited to arbitrary caps.  

Hoffman with ITI wants to add a measure to the final immigration package, specifically legislation called the Immigration Innovation Act.

That bill, which already has 15 supporters in the Senate, would expand access to green cards and H-1B visas for high-skilled immigrants while helping to raise funds for math and science education in the United States.

“We see the principles and the Immigration Innovation Act as complimentary,” Hoffman said. “It meets that standard, which is to get to highly-educated, highly-skilled people to stay in this country and create jobs.” 

Others in the tech world say they’ll be very active on immigration reform this year.

Compete America, a coalition of tech companies, business groups and universities, plans to lobby every Senate office in support of the Immigration Innovation Act.

Further, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group is flying into Washington this week a dozen chief executives from startups to push lawmakers on expanding access for visas to high-skilled immigrants.

And other groups will be in Washington this week to discuss immigration reform with lawmakers. The National Council of Agricultural Employers, for example, will have more than 70 farmers on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to meet with lawmakers.

The group is a member of the Agricultural Workforce Coalition, which was formed just last month. Several other trade groups are members, including the American Nursery & Landscape Association (ANLA).

Craig Regelbrugge, ANLA’s vice president of government relations and research, said his group is pleased with the reform principles put forward by the gang of eight. Many in agriculture have lost faith with the H-2A visa program, which helps bring in agricultural workers. Regelbrugge called it “dysfunctional.”

“We need legalization and a future program that works. … We want our workers to be able to work and travel and feed America,” Regelbrugge said.

The hospitality industry is another sector with a lot at stake in the immigration debate. Seasonal businesses like hotels depend on foreign workers entering the United States using H-2B visas.

Shawn McBurney, senior vice president of governmental affairs for the American Hotel & Lodging Association, said the visa program only allows 66,000 workers per year. That sum has to be split among several industries that can operate on a seasonal schedule, like amusement parks, car washes, commercial fishing and resorts.

“We would like the cap to be determined on market demand. When the economy was very strong, the cap was hit immediately so several seasonal businesses couldn’t hire part-time workers meaning they couldn’t operate at full capacity,” McBurney said.

Another priority will be having Congress block Labor Department regulations that critics argue would artificially inflate wages for H-2B visa workers and complicate the visa program for small businesses.

McBurney is also co-chairman of the H-2B Workforce Coalition. The group sent a letter to lawmakers on Monday supporting the visa program and is expected to release its own immigration reform principles after meeting on Tuesday.