Activists Rally
Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images
Immigration activists chant during a rally outside the U.S. Capitol last week. Many business leaders also are unhappy with aspects of the Senate's immigration bill.
updated 6/6/2007 6:01:39 PM ET 2007-06-06T22:01:39

Waves of immigrants, scorned by many people, are so valued by U.S. business that the competition for them threatens the fragile immigration compromise in Congress.

With the government bent on tightening U.S. borders and workplace regulations, competing business interests are lobbying Congress to legalize the foreign-born workers they most need, even if it means hurting other sectors.

Industries that need highly skilled, well-educated workers are pitted against those that want lower-wage, minimally skilled employees. All of them are jealously eyeing the agriculture sector, whose powerful lobby secured a separate “AgJobs” bill likely to provide ample numbers of immigrant farm workers for decades to come.

“Other than the ag guys, who are taken care of, I don’t think you could contact any constituency in the business community but they’d find a problem” with the Senate bill, said R. Bruce Josten, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s top lobbyist.

The chamber supports the bill as the best available compromise, Josten said, but the infighting among various corporate interests underscores its precarious status. “It’s divisive in the Republican base, it’s divisive in the Democratic base, it’s divisive in the business community. It splits organized labor, it splits the immigration community,” Josten said.

The chamber and other broadly based trade groups have tried to keep their constituents in line. They say a flawed compromise is preferable to doing nothing to revise a system of leaky borders that has resulted in an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the country.

Some key business sectors have balked. The National Association of Home Builders, whose members employ many thousands of immigrant workers, says the bill could endanger employers who unwittingly hire illegal immigrants and unfairly limit the number of permanent-resident green cards for low-skill workers needed by many construction crews.

“There is a huge prejudice against the kind of immigrants” typically hired by home builders, said Jerry Howard, the association’s chief executive officer. His group refused to join fellow members of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition in endorsing the measure.

Those backing the bill include trade groups for hotels, restaurants, landscapers and meat and poultry processors.

But even groups that officially support the bill are seeking changes that would help them at the expense of others, a competition that could cripple an already compromised measure that can take only so many hits.

That competition is all the keener because of last week’s Senate vote to limit the number of temporary workers entering the country to 200,000 a year, rather than the 400,000 originally proposed.

In the U.S. hotel-motel industry alone, about 300,000 low-wage jobs come open each year, and many cannot be filled without foreign-born workers, said Steve Porter, the Americas president of the Intercontinental Hotels Group.

Porter’s company and others will press the House to restore the 400,000 cap, he said. Lawmakers and lobbyists say that’s the type of battle that could threaten the Senate-crafted compromise.

Moreover, many high-tech and low-tech employers want to amend the Senate bill’s proposed point system for determining which immigrants qualify for green cards.

Comparatively low-skill industries say the new system would reduce their supply of immigrant workers by favoring foreign-born applicants with high skill levels and advanced degrees.

High-tech employers object because the plan would change an existing feature they like. Currently, they can sponsor individual workers for green cards, which can help them retain valued employees. The Senate bill would place the green card process largely under the government-run point system, giving employers much less control.

The bill’s drafters were working to fend off a proposed amendment that would leave the existing green card process largely intact. They said the amendment by Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, could destroy the delicate coalition of Democrats and Republicans needed to pass the bill and send it to the House.

But the amendment has powerful backers. The National Association of Manufacturers said in a letter to senators this week: “The Cantwell-Cornyn amendment retains employers’ flexibility in selecting the workers and determining the skill sets needed to remain competitive.”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., one of the so-called Grand Bargainers who helped draft the bill, said he and his allies are seeking ways to make the proposed green-card changes “more employer friendly” without losing them altogether. Possibilities include allowing employers, as well as individuals, file green card petitions. Another would phase in the proposed changes over several years.

“I think most of us are willing to let people understand and phase in what is a dramatic shift in immigration if that gets us a bill,” Graham said in an interview.

The business lobby already has flexed its muscle in changing some aspects of the legislation. An earlier draft would have penalized employers who knew that their subcontractors used illegal immigrants or who showed “reckless disregard” on the matter. The current version dropped the “reckless disregard” language.

“We got it back to a ’knowing’ standard,” Josten said. The Chamber of Commerce and other groups persuaded senators that the bill’s stiffer penalties for hiring illegal immigrants were enough, and there was no need for a “double whammy” regarding subcontractors.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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