The high-stakes overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws faces a little-noticed obstacle — the reluctance of many GOP legislators to accept the political trade offered by President Barack Obama and his fellow progressives.
“We’re split all over the place,” Alabama Republican Rep. Mo Brooks told The Daily Caller.
It’s a trade being offered by Obama’s coalition of progressives and executives — including chicken processors and software moguls — to about 200 GOP legislators, who are looking for ways to not anger any employers, or any of their donors or any of their all-important voters.
The progressives would gain from the deal by immediately boosting their future electorate with most of the 11 million amnestied illegals, plus most of the 22 million new immigrants that would be welcomed by 2023.
The potential gain for GOP legislators? They could provide their business allies with immediate access to the 33 million immigrant workers and customers, plus up to two million temporary guest-workers per year.
But most GOP legislators are balking at the trade, partly because the GOP’s own voters strongly oppose the import of more workers during an extended recession. If made law, the Senate’s June 2013 bill would annually add one immigrant or one guest-worker to the labor force for every one of the 40 million Americans who will turn 18 during the next decade, amid high unemployment and accelerating automation.
There’s plenty of room for a deal. Democrats want immigrants to get a quick route to citizenship, but “Republicans are going to be split on this,” said Tamar Jacoby, founder of ImmigrationWorks USA, which represents employers in the restaurant, hotel and construction sectors. “Will more [Republicans] be wanting to limit the numbers or will more see the labor needs?… I’m hopeful enough that most will understand the labor needs,” Jacoby told TheDC.
Advocates for the deal say up to 100 of the 233 Republican members support a deal that would provide work-permits to the 11 million illegals, while delaying the illegals’ path to the ballot box past 2025.
But the GOP will encounter intense public opposition to the arrival of even more foreign workers. The opposition is so strong that advocates for greater immigration rarely publish any polling numbers on the topic. Meanwhile, advocates for reduced immigration tout polls showing that as few as 2 percent of respondents strongly favor the arrival of more foreign workers.
To dodge public opposition, business advocates and progressives are coalescing around a political strategy that downplays the very unpopular effort to bring in more migrant workers, and muffles the public’s opposition to amnesty by using friendly media to highlight promises of better border security and a conditional “pathway to citizenship” for the illegals. Obama euphemistically describes the amnesty process as “getting on the right side of the law to earn their way to citizenship.”
If the dodge succeeds, progressives get their new voters and Republicans legislators please their donors and get to delay the arrival of up to one-third of the incoming 33 million immigrants to the voting booth.
The deal is a “natural Republican position that is emerging,” Jacoby said.
Democratic legislators are signaling they’ll take that deal. Even with the amnestied illegals kept out of the voting booth, the deal would create 10 million immigrant citizens by 2024 and 32 million by 2036, according to an Oct. 10 report published by the Center for Immigration Studies. Democrats would also get an opportunity to perpetually bind most immigrants and native-born Latinos to their bloc by arguing the GOP had relegated immigrant Latinos to second-class “Juan Crow” status, in which they could pay taxes but not vote.
This delayed-voting strategy is being pushed by the GOP chairman of the House judiciary committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Jacoby said. He’s won committee approval for a bill that would create a permanent pool of up to 750,000 guest-workers for the agriculture and food industry — but keep them off the citizenship track.
In contrast, the Democrats’ immigration bill, drafted in the Senate in June, would give visas to 336,000 agriculture guest-workers every five years, but also put them on a fast track to the ballot-box.
“My read on [Goodlatte] now is that he is absolutely committed to getting this [deal] done, and he’s orchestrating it as shrewdly as it can be orchestrated,” Jacoby said.
Other GOP legislators apparently back the workers-for-delayed-voters deal.
“We need to reform the immigration system so that people who want to come here… can do so, either for the short term or the long term,” Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers told TheDC Oct. 7.
When asked why Americans should vote for politicians who double today’s annual inflow of 1 million immigrants, McMorris Rogers changed the subject, and declared that “we’ve said that we’re going to take a step-by-step process… starting with enforcement” of border security.
She also cited her home-state business interests. “I represent Microsoft, which has 6,000 job openings right now,” she said.
“Washington state has a big agricultural industry, and in any given year, we need from 80,000 to 100,000 people to help us pick the fruit, and the current H-2A [guest worker] program will allow us to bring in 5,000 legally,” said McMorris Rogers, whose voters live in the eastern third of the state.
In 2013, Microsoft and several other companies submitted requests for 10,000 university-trained guest-workers. In her eastern part of the state, 52 other firms asked for permission to bring in many additional blue-collar H-2A and H-2B guest-workers to work as fish processors, interior designers, fairground workers, and 23 firms asked to import temporary fruit-pickers shepherds, and machine-operators.
The high-tech companies are very influential in Congress, partly because they can promise to create many new well-paid jobs. For example, high-tech companies are raising a huge war-chest to provide campaign-trail support to Democratic and Republican legislators who vote to increase immigration and guest-workers.
“All the money is on the side of pushing it,” Kentucky Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth said Oct. 1. “A couple weeks ago we met with Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook and he’s raised… $50 million to run ads supporting people who will support comprehensive immigration reform and to pressure people who may be on the fence,” he told a meeting hosted by the congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.
During the Senate’s drafting of its bill, the industry’s well-paid lobbyists won numerous provisions that at least double the supply of foreign professionals and weaken existing protections for U.S. professionals.
“The thing that I probably found the most most distasteful in that legislation, and I feel like it probably did not get as much [media] coverage as it should have, is the influence of the high tech industry in just coming back to the trough again and again,” said Ryan Lizza, a reporter for the the New Yorker.
“All the Senators who I interviewed for that piece, said on the record that they just keep coming back for more,” he said at an Oct. 11 event in Washington D.C.
Rep. Mo Brooks added that legislators are tempted to cave to pressure from special interest groups pushing for amnesty and want who don’t want the government to enforce existing immigration law.
“Some [legislators] are intimidated by the pressure groups that want to look the other way [from the employment of illegal immigrants], who want to give amnesty, and they’re eager to succumb to pressure which will hurt American and American families,” Brooks said.
Critics on the left and right say the United States’ already has an oversupply of high-tech experts, university graduates and blue-collar workers. Their salaries are stuck, or falling, and they’re being forced to take lower-skilled jobs.
The promise of an immigration-driven boost to the economy is belied by experience since 2000, according to the Center for Immigration Studies. The number of native-born Americans with jobs has declined by a million since 2000, even as their numbers grew by 16 million, and the number of working-age immigrants with jobs rose by 5.3 million, said a CIS study in June. The CBO study also said that the Senate bill would shift wages from workers to investors.
Businesses in Goodlatte’s valley district want to hire foreign university-trained workers. In 2011 and 2012, for example, companies in Staunton, Va., asked the federal government for visas to import four teachers, three editors, five therapists, a “regulatory compliance specialist,” a pharmacist, a city planner and a construction project manager. Nearby James Madison University asked to bring in 36 guest-workers, including six science or math teachers, four history or English teachers, plus two coaches.
GOP legislators from even very conservative districts are backing the arrival of new low-skill and high-skill workers.
On Aug. 21, Alabama Rep. Spencer Bachus endorsed work-visas for many additional low-skilled workers, partly because employers opposed the state’s immigration reform law that punished employment of illegals. Since June 2011, the reform helped drop the state’s unemployment rate by three percentage points, down to 6.3 percent in August 2013.
“The owner of three of the Chik-Fil-As here… He said ‘Congressman, we’ve got a problem [because] we’re going to send all these [illegal] workers back. That’s going to be a real problem for us,’” Bachus told the Chamber of Commerce in Gardendale, Alabama.
“I said, ‘Well, you can’t get an American?’ and he said, ‘Oh yeah, we can get an American, we can get a citizen, we can get them to do that same work, but in three weeks, they say, ‘I want to work out front [for higher wages],’ and if we say no, they leave, because they’re not going to get on their hands and knees. They’re not going to disassemble all that kitchen stuff, every night,’” Bachus recounted Aug. 21.
“And he said, ‘I have the same two young [immigrant] men that have been here ever since the store opened. They’ve never even asked me for a raise, they’ve never asked to work out front.’ And you know, that is the kind of people we’re talking about,’” Bachus said.
“Congressman Bachus is among those who see a positive economic impact from immigration reform legislation that is properly constructed and that brings workers ‘out of the shadows,’” said a statement from his press aide.
Goodlatte plays a critical role in this emerging immigration deal, because he chairs the judiciary committee, and formerly worked as an immigration lawyer. In a statement to TheDC, an aide to Goodlatte deflected questions about increased immigration’s impact on Americans.
“Any successful immigration reform must first ensure the enforcement of our immigration laws and secure the border,” the aide said in the statement. But he also said an increased inflow of foreign workers would aid American workers. “Legal immigration programs [can] grow our economy and create jobs for American workers,” he said.
Immigrant farm workers “can provide a reliable, temporary agricultural workforce to fill positions that U.S. workers are not willing to do… [and provide] jobs for U.S. citizens that support that industry,” the aide said.
In June, Goodlatte pushed a bill through the judiciary committee that would allow agriculture-sector companies to bring in 500,000 guest-workers per year, on 18-month visas. That would create a new workforce of 750,000 foreign workers for the food industry, including chicken farms, canneries, slaughterhouses and warehouses. The committee voted down a proposal from the House’s wealthiest member, Rep. Darrell Issa, to import 1.2 million agricultural guest-workers per year.
During the committee vote, Democrats complained that Goodlatte’s bill didn’t allow the 500,000 guest-workers to vote. The Democrat-drafted Senate immigration bill, passed in June, allows companies to bring in 336,000 guest-workers every five years, but offers them a path to citizenship.
The Senate bill also creates a new “W Visa” program for up 75,000 blue-collar immigrant workers, plus their working spouses and minor children. All would be entitled to apply for citizenship. Some of the W visas are intended for the meat-processing industry, at the behest of Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham., S.C.
Top Republicans, including GOP budget leader Rep. Paul Ryan, are being swayed by the farm worker pitch.
Advocates for an immigration deal, including former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, say agricultural employers have an outsized impact on GOP legislators from red-state districts.
“You go into a chicken-processing plant anywhere in Mississippi, and if you can find somebody on the floor who speaks English, I’ll give you $100,” he told an audience at a June event held by the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Barbour heads a Zuckerberg-funded group, titled “Americans for a Conservative Direction,” that is pushing for greater immigration.
The cost of farm workers and chicken-processing crews is a problem for some companies in Goodlatte’s Shenandoah Valley district.
“We’ve got 850 members and that means we’ve got 850 priorities,” said Frank Tamberrino, president of the Harrisonburg, Va., Chamber of Commerce. All members want predictability on taxes, health-care and other issues, but some members are “very interested” in immigration, he said.
The interested companies include at least two chicken-processing companies in his district, Cargill International and Pilgrim’s Pride.
Virginia’s chicken industry employes roughly 10,000 people directly and 40,000 people indirectly — such as farmers, electricians or mechanics — to produce 250 million chickens and 17 million turkeys, said Hobey Bauhan, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation.
That’s an annual output of roughly 25,000 chickens and 1,700 turkeys per worker at the processing plants.
The industry is boosting its amazing efficiency by replacing labor with technology, partly to stay ahead of foreign rivals. For example, it uses only two pounds of feed for every 1 pound of bird, and it is automating the farms and processing factories where the birds are grown and processed, Bauhan said.
The industry backs an immigration rewrite because the companies “recognize the importance of having access to legal immigrant workers and an adequate guest-worker program… at times when American workers are not willing or able to work,” he said.
The nation’s meat-packing plants have long been a focus of bitter political battles, and coverage of the tough working conditions helped establish the American newspaper as a political force in the early 1900s. In 1906, for example, “muckraker” journalist Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle,” which helped create federal meat-inspection and labor-protection laws.
Workers on the valley’s chicken-processing lines earn around $11 per hour, plus some benefits, Bauhan said. That’s a base salary of just over $20,000 per year.
That’s less that the $17.41 per hour that meat-packers earned in the 1970s, even though productivity has multiplied over the last few decades. Pay fell after the companies undermined the unions, and moved their meat-processing plants into the countryside where they could hire many rural workers and immigrants.
Roughly one-quarter of the households in Goodlatte’s district earn less than $25,000 a year. Without additional guest-workers, the valley’s salaries would likely rise. In June, Californian farmers were forced to raise salaries when could not find enough farmworkers to handle a big crop.
Salaries will likely rise if companies can’t import more low-skill workers, said Jacoby. But, she added, “there’s a limit on how much we can drive up salaries” before employers can’t afford the employees.
The problem is worsened by the reluctance of low-skilled Americans to lower their status by working alongside immigrants in restaurants, acknowledged Jacoby. But “the basic issue is the shrinking pool of low-skilled laborers,” she repeated.
Businesses in Goodlatte’s district and state are already bringing in foreign blue-collar workers for landscaping, fruit processing, farm-work, fish-hatcheries, hotels, country clubs and restaurants under the H-2A and H-2B visa programs.
If Goodlatte’s 500,000 guest-worker bill become law, Virginia’s employers’ share will be roughly 20,000 guest-workers.
The official unemployment rate in his district varies from 5 percent to a little over 8 percent. The official rate ignores people who have not looked for work in the last several weeks, and part-time workers who want full-time work.
Tea Party members in Shenandoah Valley “can abide with” an immigration policy that brings in foreign high-skill and low-skill labor, providing the government also blocks illegal immigration, said Ed Long, the leader of the Shenandoah Valley Tea Party group.
Long has met with Goodlatte and his staffers numerous times to to discuss the various draft immigration bills.
Still, said Long, Congress’ “focus should be on finding our own [labor] resources within our country. That’s the tension. There’s the confrontation.”
More broadly, excessive immigration gives progressives the power to trump conservatives ideas by making low-wage Americans more dependent on government, he warned. “Low incomes will make people fall in line with government and the party that promotes [government] will reap the rewards,” he said.
The immigration bills are vigorously opposed by legislators and groups that want to reform and reduce immigration.
Large-scale immigration “suppresses the wages of American families. It increases unemployment for Americans by undermining the ability of Americans to take care of their own,” said Brooks. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”
The opposition groups include Numbers USA, the Federation for American Immigration Reform and Americans for Legal Immigration PAC. For example, ALIPAC is directing its supporters to pressure 32 GOP legislators it believes are supporting amnesty. Those legislators includes Reps. Paul Ryan, Darrell Issa, Mike Kelly, James Lankford, Aaron Schock, Ted Poe, as well as Boehner, Goodlatte and Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
Tea Party leaders weighed in on the impending immigration overhaul on Oct. 18, with a letter to Boehner urging him to avoid passing any bill until he’s promised that he won’t allow the Democrats to push a big bill through a joint House-Senate conference. The letter was signed by the top leaders of the Tea Party Patriots movement, which is the parent network of Long’s Shenandoah Valley Tea Party group.
Amid the GOP splits, Democrats are united in their support for the importation of tens of millions of new blue-collar and university-trained job-seekers.
Progressives are eager to make the deal with GOP, even at the price of forcing their blue-collar supporters to compete for jobs against tens of millions of low-wage workers.
For example, Bachus’ support for low-wage illegal workers was applauded by the Washington Post’s Plum Line blogger. Bachus “delivered a long and remarkable speech to his constituents in which he directly took on not only King, but Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, another anti-reform diehard — and made a faith-based and compassionate argument for reform,” wrote Greg Sargent.
Obama and his Organizing For American grassroots group are promoting the Senate bill.
“Comprehensive immigration reform would create more than 3 million jobs… strengthen the middle class, and provide an earned path to citizenship for our nation’s undocumented immigrants,” said an Oct. 7 OFA statement.
But there is some dissent among Democrats, especially over the use of foreign labor to supplant Americans workers. “Many Democrats, myself included, would also be willing to separate out a pathway to citizenship for the 10 million and pass it tomorrow,” without allowing in some of the extra workers, Colorado Democrat Jared Polis told TheDC.
In the Senate’s June debate, Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders echoed Alabama conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions by slamming the bill as a giveaway to business. ”Corporate America is kind of using immigration reform as a means to continue their effort to lower wages in the United States of America, and we must not allow that to happen,” said Sanders, who then quietly voted for the bill in exchange for a $1.5 billon youth-jobs program.
But most Democrats are more focused on getting more immigrants into more voting booths. Jacoby’s business coalition “wants to take employers off the hook for employing undocumented workers, but is apparently indifferent to whether those workers can win any political rights and the bargaining power that goes with it,” declared progressive writer Harold Meyerson.
“Immigrants make America more American,” the Democrats’ House leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, told a Oct. 8 pro-amnesty rally in D.C.
But GOP legislators may not choose whether to anger their constituents or anger their business allies. They may punt the issue into 2015 or 2017, and blame Obama for the impasse.
So far, three GOP members of the bipartisan House “Gang of Eight” group, which spent several years drafted ambitious immigration bill, have publicly declared that no deal is possible because Obama can’t be trusted to negotiate in good faith or to comply with parts of the deal he doesn’t like.
“I believe in immigration reform… [but] I have seen in these negotiations that [Senate Democratic leader] Harry Reid and President Obama will not negotiate in good faith,” Rep. Raul Labrador said Oct. 17 on Laura Ingraham’s radio show. (RELATED: Rubio: Obama undermines immigration reform with selective enforcement of the law)
“We have reached a tipping point and can no longer continue working on a broad approach to immigration,” said a September statement from the two Texas Republicans in the gang. “Obama time and again has unilaterally disregarded the U.S. Constitution, the letter of the law and bypassed the Congress — the body most representative of the people — in order to advance his political agenda,” Reps. John Carter and Rep.Sam Johnson wrote.
“I think there is less trust now than in the three years I’ve been here,” Rep. Trey Gowdy, who chairs the immigration panel on Goodlatte’s judiciary committee, told his home-district newspaper Oct. 16. “So when I hear the president say immigration reform is coming next — no, it’s not.”
“As closer it gets to the election year, the more responsive politicians will be to the wishes of American voters,” Brooks told TheDC. “I think they’re concerned that so many Republicans disagree with the bill that they’re having to adjust their strategies in response.”