Chamber official optimistic about Congress passing immigration reform

Progress made in the House this fall could lead to a House-Senate conference by the end of the year and a final measure for Obama sign by early next year, before lawmakers get knee-deep into the mid-term election cycle, Johnson estimated.

He expects the bulk of the work in the House to happen in October because the legislative agenda is weighted down by fiscal issues next month.

The Chamber held a call this week with its members and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who has taken a lead on the immigration issue, and that he "feels fairly optimistic about a number of bills going forward and reaching the House floor and going to conference with the Senate bill."

Johnson argued that congressional Republicans seem willing to make immigration a priority.

"I think that the Republican party wants to find a way to get this behind them because it's the right thing for the country and because it is a good thing to do politically," he said.

Besides Ryan's expression of support, his optimism stems from the feedback of hundreds of conversations with lawmakers, including Tea Party members, over the August recess, as well as the experience of two previous immigration debates and the "gray hair" earned during those campaigns.

"No one is in the camp where they were six years ago, except for maybe 10 people, where anyone is talking about deportation," Johnson said.

"There is general acceptance of the legalization for undocumented workers" and that is a "huge shift from what is was six years ago when people were still talking about no legalization and deportation."

During his travels, the response to an overhaul of the nation's immigration system, especially among religious groups, is "exponentially better than it was six years ago."

The Chamber is pressing for a bill that combines improved border security, temporary and high- and low-skilled worker programs, including agriculture, and legalization — something in between what the House and Senate have produced so far, Johnson said. 

A final bill can't cut off an avenue to citizenship and the framework within the measure could require a series of steps that eventually get someone to that point over time.

"We don't want a situation where we have a second class of people who are merely seen as workers and not part of the American fabric," he said.

He also said E-Verify must be mandatory.

Johnson posited that the House and Senate could combine their work on border security. The Chamber prefers the House's approach on the E-Verify system.

He also cautioned against a bill that would focus solely on border security and nothing else calling it "a straw man."

Still, he said that while the Chamber will head back up to Capitol Hill to work on the issue next month, it is up to lawmakers to iron out the final details. 

"There are a lot of ideas on the table."