How Big Business Turned the Anti-Immigrant Tide

  • Share
  • Read Later

It couldn't last forever. With all the money it throws around on Congress, Big Business tends to get its own way in Washington. But for three surprising months this winter, on an issue near and dear to its heart, corporate America seemed to be getting the cold shoulder on Capitol Hill. It started last December when House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, without informing the business lobby in Washington, whipped through a draconian immigration bill that targeted the so-called "jobs magnet" — agribusiness, service sector, construction and other industries that eagerly, and often illegally, employ cheap, undocumented immigrant labor to cut costs. The law would have stripped business of much of its semi-skilled laborers by forcing undocumented workers to leave the country, would have jacked up fines on employers for hiring illegals and would have required businesses to check the identities of prospective hires with the Department of Homeland Security.

Sensenbrenner had gone right at the most powerful lobby in town (as well as the President's own agenda), and they were not amused. Last January Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said of the House bill, "It is simply unworkable, unreasonable and fundamentally unfair." Asked to explain how big business could have been blindsided so badly by Sensenbrenner, Laura Foote Reiff, co-chair of the Essential Workers Immigration Coalition, a huge business lobby, said, "The House Judiciary Committee does not share and was not willing to share with us."

But Monday night, Reiff and other business lobbyists broke into applause and embraced each other in the Dirksen office building as the Senate Judiciary committee voted 12-6 to send a bill sponsored by chairman Arlen Specter to the floor that swings the momentum back to their side. In a sharp rebuke to Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who had said he would introduce his own, tough counterpart to the House bill, Specter, three other Republicans and all the committee's Democrats united to force a pro-business, pro-immigrant bill through. Said a smiling Reiff minutes after the vote: "Specter takes a more expansive view of these issues than Sensenbrenner."

Frankly, it's amazing the anti-business push lasted as long as it did. Huge amounts of money are at stake, and nothing focuses lobbying efforts like the bottom line. California's agriculture industry alone is a $31 billion-a-year behemoth, a point made with more than a little intensity yesterday by California Senator Diane Feinstein as she put through an amendment opening the door for 1.5 million new agricultural workers to enter the country. Reiff of the Essential Workers Immigration Coalition claims 5% of the U.S. workforce are illegal immigrants and that industry needs 300,000 to 500,000 new workers a year in order to cover for retiring baby boomers. But with anti-immigration activists like Sensenbrenner getting the drop on business last year, it was not easy to turn the tide. Public sentiment seemed to be largely behind the Sensenbrenner agenda, so the lobbyists focused their efforts on quietly lining up Judiciary Committee Republicans and ensuring a bill would get a vote on the floor of the Senate. Allies in the religious community and among immigrant rights groups helped organize the massive rallies over the last week that provided cover for Republicans.

The business lobby's comeback was due in no small part to three Republican Senators: Ohio's Mike DeWine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sam Brownback of Kansas. At the Judiciary Committee mark-up yesterday that passed the pro-business bill, those three voted consistently for the Democratic pro-immigrant amendments Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy was pushing. More important, Graham agreed to co-sponsor, and introduce in committee, the entire pro-immigrant (and pro-business) bill Kennedy and Senator John McCain had crafted over the last year. The business lobby was not shy about taking credit. "We got him to introduce it," says Reiff, "because he's a Republican." When it came time for final passage, Specter literally produced gasps in the hearing room as he cast the final vote in favor of the bill himself, giving it extra momentum as it heads to the floor.

Until the final votes were cast, few thought it would come out this way. After the morning session, Ohio's Mike DeWine was, like most observers, bemused by the chaos. Senators were pushing numerous amendments, offering second-degree amendments on top of them, then retracting the packages altogether. "Usually I can get a feel for how something's going to go, but I can't figure this one out," DeWine said. "It's not clear to me at all what this bill is going to look like."

By mid-afternoon,however, Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas sponsor of a bill that would have split the difference between the Sensenbrenner and Kennedy bills, was in full retreat — literally leaving the building through the basement passageways into the Russell Senate office building. At the end of the day, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, Cornyn's co-sponsor, was left alone proposing a series of amendments and wishing out loud that Cornyn were still there to offer some of them himself. Each went down to defeat as Kennedy sat, Buddha-like and in complete control, casting proxy votes in his deep baritone for several Democrats who were not present — and, in one amusing absent-minded moment, even for one, Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, who was.

Big businesses weren't the only ones excited by the result. The Catholic Conference of Bishops had a representative attending the entire judiciary committee mark-up. Religious officials of all denominations had protested the House bill because it would have criminalized assistance to illegal immigrations. The Specter bill produced yesterday would do no such thing.

One clear loser in this mix is Frist. Having said he'd bring up his own, tough counterpart to the House bill for a vote, the presidential hopeful is now forced to allow consideration of a guest worker program that has all the hallmarks of the amnesty his potential supporters on the right detest. Emerging from the elevator banks in the Dirksen building as the last of the jubilant business lobbyists was leaving and walking slowly down the hall toward a meeting with the rest of the Republican leadership and Senator Specter, Frist admitted the committee vote had altered his plans: "I'm sure it will shape my thinking," he said with understatement.

No one is out of the woods yet, however. The Specter bill faces 10 tough days of floor debate. And the part that deals with verifying employee status isn't even finished yet. "We're very concerned about that," says Reiff. Even if the Senate does pass the bill, the conference with the House would be very difficult. "It'll probably die in conference," says Randel Johnson of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That would be just fine, of course, with the business lobby, which knows that sometimes the best thing money can buy, especially in Washington, is the status quo.