By Vicki Needham - 08/25/13 11:00 AM EDT
Business groups say their grassroots efforts to build support for an immigration overhaul are paying off and making them increasingly optimistic that Congress will complete comprehensive legislation this fall.
Business groups want to see the House and Senate join forces as they have done with a diverse coalition of groups to push through an immigration package that streamlines the process and helps employers fill persistent openings for low- and high-skilled workers, while providing better border security.
"We believe strongly that fixing the immigration system makes for a healthier American economy and must attract individuals from around the world," said Matt Sonnesyn, director of research for the Business Roundtable.
"We are making sure we have the labor force needed, especially in the service industries, so as the economy gets cooking, we're better able to maintain productivity."
The push for reform from business groups, while ongoing for much of the past decade, has ramped up this year with executives hawking their message during the August recess that inaction is not an option for Congress.
For example, Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman attended a forum near his company's headquarters in Illinois and a top Chamber of Commerce executive is traveling through Indiana and Tennessee to engage on the issue. The National Association of Manufacturers has radio spots in seven crucial states, mostly through the Midwest.
"Pushing the House to act has been the Chamber’s foremost goal during August and will continue to be our goal when they return in September," said Chamber spokeswoman Blair Holmes.
"While members of Congress are in their districts, we are making sure they hear from the business community."
The Chamber has approximately 70 meetings scheduled over recess and has gotten state and local chambers involved.
The community-by-community approach is generating blanket optimism among the business groups that Congress has the drive to scale the challenges on the immigration front.
Sonnesyn said he is confident that a bill will survive the methodical legislative process for several reasons. He said the political environment doesn't feel anything like it did in 2007, when Congress last tried to forge an immigration deal, because there is growing recognition that action needs to be taken.
He also is encouraged to see House lawmakers, especially those in leadership, consistently talking about need for a careful process.
"They are talking about how to move it forward, not about how to kill it," he said.
Joe Trauger, NAM's vice president of human resources policy, said that reform is all about the ability to attract and retain talent, which he called "very important to manufacturers."
Manufacturers are struggling to fill more than 600,000 jobs because of a lack of trained workers across all skill levels, he said.
"At the end of the day, it is a competitiveness issue," Trauger said.
"The outdated laws now are overly cumbersome, are not built for this economy, and they provide no ability to adapt to what we're facing in the future," he said.
Manufacturers argue that while the United States educates some of the world's best and brightest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, it fails to give them a clear-cut path to stay and work here, meaning they leave and "compete against us."
"We want to be able to keep best talent here."
The challenge of filling those high-skilled jobs is exacerbated by the lack of Americans going into those fields, prompting many groups to push for better STEM education to ensure there is a "long-term domestic pipeline" of workers, Trauger said.
The far-reaching goals of immigration policy have forced business groups to shift their focus from simply finding ways to get more high-skilled workers to better protecting the nation's borders, creating a viable E-Verify system, providing a pathway to citizenship for those who are already here and simplifying avenues to fill both higher- and lower-skilled positions.
The Chamber specifically calls for green card reform and implementing more functional temporary worker programs.
"That's one of the big misunderstandings. We support a comprehensive solution because if one cog breaks down, it ripples through the whole system and creates a drag," Trauger said.
"We have to have a system so people to come in and work as market demands it," he said.
The Senate passed an immigration bill at the end of July, and the House Judiciary Committee approved five bills last month, with a couple more expected.
Still, there is nagging concern that the House's effort to send a bill to President Obama's desk will end once lawmakers pass their preferred pieces of legislation.
"The point we’re making over the recess is that we need to keep the process moving forward and figure out a way to get a bill to the president’s desk," Blair Holmes said.
But that the threat of gridlock isn't agitating business groups.
"The House has different position than Senate, but that's OK," Sonnesyn said. "That's why we have two houses of Congress. We're happy to work with both houses and parties to resolve differences."
Trauger agreed that while NAM key-voted the Senate bill, it doesn't mean they want the House to pass the upper chamber's legislation.
"We don't want to be forcing members to say what they won't do," he said.
"We've done everything we can to be encouraging so lawmakers can work out their differences and move forward."
The biggest looming hurdle is the upcoming focus on Capitol Hill about raising the debt ceiling and keeping the government running, which are expected to take precedence before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
Trauger is optimistic that an immigration bill will move in October, although he expects the budget battles to complicate matters.
To get an immigration bill done, "Congress will have to walk and chew gum at the same time," he said.
As business leaders push lawmakers to join ranks to pass legislation, they have also formed some unlikely alliances to see a bill through.
NAM and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) sent a letter to the Senate in support of their legislation. Manufacturers also are teaming up with the National Council of La Raza, with NAM CEO Jay Timmons speaking at the group's annual conference last month.
"It's an unusual thing and it reflects how important it is that we move forward as a country," Trauger said.
The Chamber has reached far and wide for partners across agriculture, housing, retail, faith, tourism, hospitality and technology and others who support reform.
A letter signed by 456 other organizations was sent to House Republican and Democratic leadership before the recess saying “failure to act is not an option."
"We can’t afford to be content and watch a generation-old immigration system work more and more against our overall national interest. Instead, we urge Congress to remain mindful of the clear benefits to our economy if we succeed, and work together and with us to achieve real, pro-growth immigration reform.”