Business leaders, who have built an alliance with immigration advocates, want to emphasize that the various legislative proposals would allow more high-skilled workers into the United States. The proposals’ adjustments would also make it easier for foreign graduate students to obtain visas and extend their stays here.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense that we’re training them just to ship them back to their own country so they’re competing against us,” says Heath Weems, the director of education and workforce policy for the National Association of Manufacturers.
The strategy of elevating the less controversial segments of the reform legislation is aimed at minimizing the divisive, emotional battles over what is to be done with the millions of low-skilled immigrants already in the country. That issue divided Congress last year, stalling passage of legislation sought by President Bush. It also carried a political price, as post-election polls show that the sometimes harsh rhetoric on Capitol Hill pushed Hispanic voters toward Democrats in November, helping them take over the Congress.
Several reform proposals are likely to be floated on Capitol Hill. The core aspects of the proposals include an increase in the number of visas issued for highly skilled workers coupled with a path for those with fewer skills to become citizens. Those plans could include having them pay fines, learn English or return to their native country for a brief period.
Both sides are gearing up for another fierce debate. The November election, an embattled White House and an organized business community could give reform advocates a new edge in the fight. In addition, opponents of the bill must regroup this year after a dispute over internal spending has hobbled one of their most visible and high-pitched members: the California-based Minutemen Project, which organizes people to patrol the Mexican border.
Democrats see an opportunity to firm up their support among the nation’s fast-growing Hispanic electorate, which could boost the party’s electoral prospects in 2008 and perhaps for decades.
The White House is hungry for a domestic victory, and immigration reform has been a top Bush priority, in part because his political advisers see the same electoral advantages for Republicans as the Democrats do.
More than 300 groups lobbied on immigration last year, records show, a reflection of how the complex legislation could have broad ramifications in the business world as well as in the immigrant community. For instance, NAM supports changes in the way businesses must document their workers. Meanwhile, the American Farm Bureau supports a section that would allow for a guest worker program that could get them through harvests.
“People talk about fly-ins (to lobby lawmakers on the bill), but we have people that are coming in every week meeting with various members on Capitol Hill,” says Paul Schlegel, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau. “It’s a constant, ongoing presence.”
Indeed, the corporate interest in immigration reform could be the tipping point. Three coalitions have been formed to help push through changes in the visas for highly skilled workers; for ammunition, they point to a recent Duke University study that found that 25 percent of new high-tech firms were founded by immigrants between 1995 and 2005.