U.S. Hispanic CoC emerges as immigration pivot player

The imbroglio that has arisen around the politically hot issue of immigration reform has put the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in a strong position, as Republican and Democratic leaders are turning more often to the nonpartisan group to gain leverage in the Hispanic community.

Other national Hispanic advocacy organizations are viewed as partisan. For example, the National Council of La Raza is viewed as liberal, while the Latino Coalition is seen as right-leaning. But the Hispanic Chamber is perceived in Washington more neutrally.

Earlier this month, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman and early 2008 presidential primary favorite Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) delivered speeches at the organization’s annual legislative conference.

The conference also drew Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). McCain, Kerry and Brownback, along with Clinton, are expected to vie for their parties’ presidential nominations.

As an association representing Hispanic-owned and -run businesses, the Chamber represents a cross-section of the Hispanic community that is up for grabs in the never-ceasing partisan battle for new voters. Hispanics as a group tend to favor Democrats over Republicans, but small-business owners support the tax policies and light regulatory approach of Republicans.

During his remarks, Mehlman made an aggressive pitch on why Hispanic voters should find a home in the Republican Party.

Swing groups are powerful, especially in a politically charged environment. President Bush captured 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, up from 35 percent in 2000.

Republicans and Democrats have jockeyed vigorously to blame each other for the Senate’s failure to pass immigration reform as hundreds of thousands of Hispanics filled the streets in pro-immigration rallies around the country.

“I think our organization is uniquely situated on this whole issue,” said Michael Barrera, president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber. “We’re a business organization with a lot of contacts and inroads within the Hispanic community.”

The association has 215 local affiliates across the country and Puerto Rico and claims to represent about 2 million Hispanic-owned businesses. The Chamber urged its members to contact senators over the April recess and urge them to pass a compromise on immigration reform on their return to Washington. The Chamber strongly opposes the House-passed immigration bill, which does not include a guest-worker program.

Barrera said in an interview that he is working with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to salvage a compromise on immigration reform. A Chamber official said that Frist and Barrera are working closely and often speak one on one.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has also consulted with Barrera, along with other Hispanic leaders, including him in a conference call during the first week of recess. Barrera said that Reid assured Hispanic leaders during the call that he is encouraging Frist to revive the immigration compromise crafted by Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and Mel Martinez (Fla.). The deal appeared on the verge of passing the Senate before a partisan dispute over floor procedure erupted and scuttled the chance of quick passage.

“Our position is: ‘Great, all that’s fine, but let’s get it done,’” Barrera said, characterizing his response to lawmakers’ painting a pleasant picture of their work with members of the rival party. “We’re not so concerned about the politics; we’re concerned about getting things done.”

The Senate will revisit the immigration debate now that it is back in session. Compromise immigration legislation has been held at the Senate desk to allow quick resumption of work, and an identical version has been sent to the Judiciary Committee for tinkering.

The parties’ battle over the allegiance of Hispanic voters may position the Hispanic Chamber well for future policy debates and make it a valuable ally of business interests typically perceived as white-male-dominated.

Immigration is at the forefront of the Hispanic Chamber’s agenda, but the group’s top priorities are shared by other business lobbying groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business, which are seen as strongly allied with the GOP.

The U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has no ties to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Hispanic Chamber’s ties to the Hispanic community position it to reach the ears of Democratic lawmakers, something other business groups have struggled to do at times.

The potential advantage doesn’t seem lost on the Hispanic Chamber; last year it hired Guillermo Meneses, a former spokesman for the Democratic National Committee and the New Democrat Network, to serve as its vice president for communications.