Businesses lobbying for brain, brawn

Farm groups want to fix the labor shortages that hampered Western harvests last year. Companies that rely on tourism want to ease restrictions on international travel.

High-tech groups, meanwhile, are pushing hard to boost the availability of visas for foreign workers to fill jobs in a domestic industry on the rebound.

ADVERTISEMENT
A broad array of business and other interest groups is lobbying for an overhaul of immigration laws as the Senate prepares to start to debate the issue this week.

But for lawmakers, a key question remains: Is immigration reform worth the political risk?

“I don’t see a clear path,” said one lobbyist who supports comprehensive immigration reform but requested anonymity in order to speak more freely. “This is a tough issue for a lot of people.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has set a deadline this week to start the debate on immigration reform. The placeholder bill is now the measure that passed the Senate last year.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that the business groups that generally support a broad overhaul — rather than the enforcement-only approach their traditional allies on the Hill, House Republicans, adopted last Congress — do not support reform at any cost.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others supported the Senate bill last year as a counterweight to the House effort, which left untouched complicated issues like what to do with the millions of undocumented workers in the country or how many temporary workers to allow in.

The Senate bill was amended to allow 200,000 temporary workers in the United States annually, but that is about half of what is needed, said Randel Johnson, the Chamber’s immigration point person. Another concern is that the employment-verification system will be too costly.

“There are still a lot of big issues outstanding,” Johnson said.

With Democrats in charge in the House, the debate has moved from enforcement to comprehensive reform. But the politics of the issue aren’t any clearer.

Lobbyists said there remains reluctance to tackle the controversial issue, particularly among the crop of freshman Democrats who represent districts that lean conservative.

Mickey Ibarra, a former Clinton administration official who now lobbies for National Council for La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, said a few Democrats will likely vote against comprehensive immigration reform.

“You need to have a certain amount of Republican support,” he said. “That is a tricky dance.”

Farm groups are among the biggest supporters of the effort. Craig Regelbrugge, the co-chairman of the Agriculture
Coalition for Immigration Reform, said farms in the Southwest and on the West Coast suffered worker shortages as high as 30 percent as enforcement efforts of existing immigration laws were stepped up.

“Agriculture is teetering and vulnerable,” Regelbrugge said. “The facts on the ground are startling.”

His group wants the bill to include provisions that would make it easier for farm workers to come and work in the United States on a temporary basis to meet the demand for farm labor, which is now met almost exclusively by foreigners.

Regelbrugge admits that the vast majority of farm labor workers are in the country illegally. But his group strongly supports providing them a path to legal status — what critics refer to as “amnesty.”

Meanwhile, high-tech companies are lobbying on another hot-button issue: They want to increase the number of H-1B visas available. There are 85,000 H-1B visas issued this year, but that’s not enough to meet demand, high-tech lobbyists
say. Critics argue that high-tech companies want cheaper foreign labor.

The Information Technology Industry Council wrote Senate leaders a letter last week saying that the immigration bill should “streamline the path to permanent residency for U.S.-educated students studying math and science, provide critical relief with respect to the number of available H-1B and employment-based visas, and reduce the backlog within the
employment-based Green Card system.”

For their part, a group of hotel and entertainment chains is trying to add fixes to the visa program to simplify international travel to the United States.

Geoffrey Freeman, the executive director for the Discover America Partnership, which include Marriott International, Anheuser-Busch, and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, said overseas travel to the United States has dropped 20 percent since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when this country adopted new visa standards.

That translates into $94 billion in lost spending, Freeman said, as more and more business meetings and trade shows are held outside the United States.

The group’s legislative package, which runs more than 20 pages, calls for extending visa-free travel privileges to countries that are aiding U.S. efforts against terrorism. It also supports updating American visa services to make the process more efficient and hiring more customs officials so that arriving visitors don’t have to wait in long lines.

“No wonder people don’t want to come here when you have to wait in a two-hour line to get through,” Freeman said.

The consensus on K Street seems to lean against the immigration reform measure ever reaching President Bush’s desk. But optimists say that big, complicated measures like this one often seem hopeless in part because of political posturing before a compromise is worked out.

John Gay of the National Restaurant Association — a group that supports broad reform — said he puts the bill’s chances at 50-50, but he called the glass “half full.”

Democrats, he said, ran against a do-nothing Republican Congress, and immigration reform is a good chance for the new majority to distinguish itself from the old one.

•••

After just six months on the job, Juanita Duggan is out at the American Forest and Paper Association.

Duggan took over as president and CEO of the trade group during a reorganization begun by her predecessor, W. Henson
Moore, a former Republican congressman from Louisiana. Duggan, who is also a Republican, came over to the group from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America.

As the Forest and Paper Association reorganized, internal divisions sprouted among its members over a particular tax on timber companies. Some members supported the tax change, while others opposed it, which further complicated Duggan’s job, sources said.