Business groups optimistic Congress may finally strike immigration deal

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WASHINGTON — Some of the largest business groups in Washington are making a last-ditch effort to get Congress to pass immigration legislation before the end of the year and are optimistic a bipartisan agreement could fall into place.

Companies in a range of industries, from agriculture to technology, have long urged Congress to make changes to the immigration system to allow for more foreign-born workers and thereby address widespread worker shortages.

But with deep partisan divides on the issue, there was little optimism of a deal getting done, until this past week when Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., began circulating the contours of a possible deal. (Sinema announced on Friday she was leaving the Democratic Party to become an independent.)

While the details of a Sinema-Tillis bill have yet to be finalized, the pair’s track record of being able to reach compromise on other issues sparked a wave of optimism among industry lobbyists, who see it as their last best hope to get a deal done on immigration in an increasingly narrow time frame.

“The stars are never going to be in alignment like they are right now,” said Sean Kennedy, vice president of public affairs at the National Restaurant Association. “This piece of legislation is probably not going to have a good chance of moving in the next Congress, and as we get closer to a presidential election there’s going to be even less likelihood of something like this moving forward. So the timing is not lost on us at all.”

The American Hotel and Lodging Association recently launched a six-figure advertising push in North Carolina, South Carolina, Arizona, Texas and West Virginia calling on Congress to pass legislation that would allow more immigrant workers and has been polling on the issue. The National Restaurant Association said it is preparing to launch a major campaign involving its members to support a potential bill once it has more details. The Chamber of Commerce, the country’s largest business group, also threw its support behind the Sinema-Tillis efforts.

“The Chamber is encouraged by these recent developments, and we applaud Sens. Sinema and Tillis for having the courage to tackle these intractable issues,” said Jon Baselice, vice president of immigration policy at the Chamber of Commerce. “We look forward to working with them over the next few weeks to move legislation forward that provides critical resources to properly secure our border, enacts much-needed reforms to our asylum laws, improves the operation of our legal immigration system, and brings real, lasting relief to Dreamers across the country.”

There is still plenty of doubt on Capitol Hill about the prospects for a deal, especially before the end of the year. Tillis told NBC News on Wednesday that he’s still working on getting other lawmakers to agree on the framework, but said so far it has been “pretty warmly received." He acknowledged though that the window is quickly closing to get legislation passed before Republicans take control of the House in January, something that could create an added hurdle even if members of the Senate can find a compromise.

“If we don’t act now," Tillis said, "we probably will not be in a position to have something balanced that really gets to the border security components of this bill for two to four years."

Businesses have been calling on Congress to change the immigration system and make it easier for them to hire foreign workers for years, but the situation has grown increasingly dire since the pandemic. There were 10.3 million open jobs last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the restaurant industry, there are more than 400,000 fewer workers than before the pandemic, and hotels are down 350,000 jobs from pre-pandemic levels, according to industry groups. That’s caused restaurants to reduce their hours and hotels to cut back on services or operate below full capacity, industry officials said.

“One of the biggest items that is pushing restaurants to closing is we don’t have enough workers to allow us to stay open and to serve customers to actually be able to pay our own bills and to keep our own doors open,” Kennedy said.

Reducing the number of job vacancies could have a wider effect on bringing down inflation as less competition for workers would reign in wage increases that companies then pass along to consumers, economists have said.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said in a speech earlier this week that Trump-era immigration restrictions had contributed to the labor shortage that is driving inflation. That, combined with pandemic-related deaths, had resulted in a shortage of 1 million to 1.5 million workers, Powell said.

“When you have businesses that can’t keep their doors open, because they don’t have enough workers, and yet you have workers who want to come here and work, it seems like you can figure out a pretty simple solution to that,” said Chip Rogers, head of the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

Limited details of the Sinema-Tillis plan have been released, but a “draft framework” circulated by the two earlier this week includes increased border security, changes to the system for asylum seekers and a pathway to citizenship for "Dreamers," young, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children by their parents, according to people familiar with the plan.

While businesses see any reforms to the immigration system as a positive, it is unclear whether the legislation would address their main concern of increasing the number of foreign-born workers who can come to the U.S. temporarily or long term.

“You’ve got to start somewhere, but if you want to solve the problem, it’s going to have to look different than what we’re hearing now,” said Rogers. “You need more guest workers, there’s no question about that. Then on top of that, how does the U.S. address what appears to be a worker shortage that has been persistent and will be persistent for quite some time? Well, you have to allow more legal immigration.”

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., supports the Sinema-Tillis effort and said he hopes it can be expanded to add protections for Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, holders. But he acknowledged that tackling an immigration bill in the final weeks of the year is a difficult task given that leadership is focused right now on passing complicated defense policy and government funding packages.

“We recognize at the end of the day, you have to have leadership support and broad consensus in order to get something into the package,” Cardin said in an interview. “So we recognize it’s a challenge, but it’s something that’s a priority for many of us. We hope it can be successful.”

Republicans who have been involved in past efforts to change immigration laws poured cold water on the Sinema-Tillis push.

“That’s not going anywhere; that’s a pipe dream,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told NBC News on Wednesday. “You’ve got to do something with the border, you can’t just start legalizing people. I appreciate them working on it — there’s a deal to be done down the road — but it’s not money, it’s policy.”

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