Tech firms: Immigration reform no liability

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Tech companies are keeping up the push for immigration reform as the political calendar closes in on the midterm elections.

In coming months, advocates plan to convince House Republican lawmakers that the issue is not a political liability when voters head to the polls. And for proof, they are pointing to recent primary elections where Republicans who went out on a limb in favor of reform were rewarded.

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"If I were someone who was a little nervous about this issue, I would look back at our primaries and be heartened by what’s happened,” said Rob Jesmer, the campaign manager with FWD.us and a former executive director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. 

The group, linked to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg and other major Silicon Valley executives, has been one of the most visible supporters of immigration reform from the tech sector. They plan to push on with a string of ads and outreach through the summer.

"We'll continue running ads, boosting our grassroots advocacy among members of the tech community, and working with a broad coalition of pro-reform allies ahead of the midterms," added Kate Hansen, FWD.us’s communications director.

Other organizations are also planning efforts to convince GOP lawmakers that the climate is safe for them to come out on the issue.

“There are a lot of times to get this done if we can get the politics right,” said Jeremy Robbins, executive director of the Partnership for a New American Economy. “So we are very aggressively and optimistically pushing for that.”

Robbins’s group represents more than 500 mayors and corporate executives, including tech leaders like Zuckerberg, Microsoft CEO Steven Ballmer and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey.

Last month’s primary in Texas, he said, was a prime example of how support for immigration reform won't hurt Republicans at the polls.

Two lawmakers, Reps. John Carter (R-Texas) and Sam Johnson (R-Texas) were actively willing to engage on immigration as part of a House working group, which could have exposed them to heat from the right.

Instead, Carter went unchallenged in the primary. Johnson handily beat his opponents with 80 percent of the vote. 

Both Republicans dropped out of the working group earlier this year, saying they couldn’t trust President Obama to effectively enforce the laws, and would not be able to engage until they could.

Still, their experience shows that the issue is no longer a liability, said Robbins. Voters just don’t care, especially not as much as they care about other contentious issues like healthcare reform.

“The reality is where it helps you it helps you a lot, and where it’s not helpful -- at least what was suggested through Texas primary and other polling -- where it doesn’t help you it doesn’t really matter because people are voting on ObamaCare,” he said.

A poll conducted by the advocacy group and conducted by the Texas Republican firm Baselice and Associates found that candidates’ positions on immigration reform did not affect voter turnout in the Texas primary. Only 16 percent of people said the issue was one of their two most important, compared to 48 percent who cited ObamaCare and 36 percent who pointed to the economy and jobs.

"I think the holdup is that, candidly, people don’t believe” that it's not a political liability, said one person working on reform for the tech industry. “We need to continue to present more evidence." 

The vast majority of all primary filings will need to be in by the end of the month. That should spell out the political stakes for Republicans fearful of a challenge from the right and relieve some pressure for lawmakers without a serious contest.

"As people recognize that they don’t even have challengers at the end of April, I think there might be a little more impetus for movement,” said another advocate working on the issue. 

Supporters said that the issue would not go away, though the politics get harder the longer lawmakers wait. 

If the House doesn’t finalize a bill this year, that could delay the issue until 2015, when many expect the political climate to get significantly more heated in the run up to the presidential election.

Waiting until then could also mean that control of the Senate may change hand if Republicans manage to pick up six seats in the chamber. That could prompt lawmakers to reevaluate the issue, throwing a wrench in some activists’ plans.

“If there’s a change in the control of the Senate, it’ll be a whole different environment that we’re going to look at this issue, a whole different light that we’re going to look at this issue,” said Mike Hettinger, head of public sector issues at the trade group TechAmerica.