WASHINGTON — While the immigration debate has been put on the back burner in Washington, national and local business heavyweights are working behind the scenes – and using their financial might – to press House Republicans to bring legislation overhauling the immigration system to a vote.
The well-organized groups are led by some of the biggest names in business, such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. They’ve set their sights on GOP members in the South such as North Carolina Reps. Renee Ellmers of Dunn, Richard Hudson of Concord and George Holding of Raleigh, who the groups feel can be compelled to support an overhaul.
The groups have recruited the top business leaders in technology, agriculture, manufacturing and chambers of commerce in each of their districts to help deliver a unified message that immigration legislation is crucial to the success of the North Carolina economy.
The cadre of business leaders extends well beyond Bloomberg and Zuckerberg. Partnership for a New American Economy, led by Bloomberg, also includes Steve Ballmer of Microsoft, Rupert Murdoch of News Corp., and Bill Marriott of Marriott hotels. Zuckerberg’s group, FWD.us, includes Napster co-founder Sean Parker and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.
Zuckerberg told members of Congress recently that he plans to spend $50 million on advertisements supporting members of Congress who support an immigration overhaul and pressuring others who may be on the fence.
It’s part of a campaign blitz that will launch a month of rallies and television spots that will culminate with an Oct. 28 business summit in Washington, that’s expected to attract hundreds of business leaders from around the country.
Ellmers, Hudson and Holding are three of about 40 House Republicans who the groups have identified as increasingly influential freshman and sophomore House members who have pushed Republicans toward more conservative positions. But they’re also seen as movable on immigration because they represent districts with large technology, agriculture and/or manufacturing sectors – industries strongly behind an immigration overhaul.
The districts that Ellmers, Hudson and Holding represent have a significant agriculture presence. Ellmers and Holding also represent parts of the Research Triangle. And Hudson has a growing tech community developing in Kannapolis.
North Carolina is a key state for the groups supporting immigration legislation because of its conservative leaders and the fact that so many local industries are affected by the issue, said Jeremy Robbins, a policy adviser and director of Bloomberg’s Partnership for a New American Economy coalition.
“You have a hugely powerful agriculture voice. You have the Research Triangle. You have a pretty decent sized undocumented immigrant population,” he said. “So everything is playing out right there.”
Robbins said the group’s strategy for getting House leadership to move a bill forward is not to target the easiest votes, but the hardest ones. And those pushing against House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on many issues are the freshman and sophomore lawmakers who represent the conservative wing of the party.
“If you want to move Boehner, the way to do it is you move the people who he is being responsive too,” Robbins said.
Bloomberg’s and Zuckerberg’s groups hired leading North Carolina GOP consultants such as Chris Sinclair and Dee Stewart to arrange meetings with the members and round up support from the state’s top GOP fundraisers.
Billionaire Jim Goodnight, CEO and co-founder of Cary software firm SAS, prominent sweet potato farmer John Barnes, developer Justus “Jud” Ammons, homebuilder Tim Minton and agribusiness leader H. Frank Grainger have lent their names to the effort.
“Most of us are very big supporters of Renee and George’s,” Grainger said. “And I think we’ll be able to explain ourselves. But they have to have other friends to go along with them to help secure borders and do everything they have to do to make all this happen.”
If Ellmers is any indication, the pro-immigration groups’ strategy appears to be working. The sophomore Republican, who last year opposed President Barack Obama’s executive order blocking deportations of undocumented youth, sent a letter last month to House leadership in support of an immigration overhaul.
Doing nothing, she said, will cause economic harm to North Carolina’s farmers and its hospitality and high tech industries. She says this is not a so-called “path to citizenship,” buzzwords that some on the right associate with “amnesty.” But she also says that those who receive legal status should not be barred from ever being citizens.
“I’ll admit I’ve gotten misinformation, and a lot of it has been messaging and not being able to articulate what it is that we’re looking forward to,” she said in an interview. “Border security is paramount, but there is so much more to that.”
Legislation has a chance
The immigration debate that raged over the summer fizzled as Congress became consumed with the crisis in Syria, a budget showdown and the looming debt ceiling fight. But the persistent pressure by business leaders, and the responsiveness of Ellmers and other Republicans, who have indicated new support for immigration legislation, is a sign that an overhaul still has a chance in the House.
On a panel at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Public Policy Conference with other members of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight,” who drafted their own comprehensive immigration bill, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pressed businesses to increase their lobbying of House members.
“Every time you see a business person, large or small, ask them what they’ve done lately for comprehensive immigration reform,” McCain told the panel’s audience on last week.
Holding, who is on the House Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Border Security, joined House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy last spring for a trip to Silicon Valley, where they met with Zuckerberg and other tech leaders about their struggles to retain foreign-born tech workers. Holding understands the challenge, he says.
“When Dr. Goodnight, at SAS, says, ‘Hey, I need more statisticians. The statisticians I need are available at N.C. State University, but they’re not U.S. citizens. And we need to have a law that would accommodate giving them some form of visa to stay in the United States work …’ I understand that,” he said.
Holding wants to find a solution for the critical North Carolina industries, but he says he can’t support some of the other proposals often tied to them, such as a so-called pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. illegally. The citizenship component is by far the most controversial aspect of the debate. The Senate bill passed this summer includes a pathway to citizenship, but many House Republicans see any special pathway as a form of amnesty.
“It goes to the root of their crime,” Holding said. “That’s why the punishment is appropriate that they should never become citizens.”
Holding said he will consider proposals that would allow some of those here illegally to stay and work, but not as citizens.
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