Special Interests Shadow Immigration Reform

Beth Reinhard
April 28, 2013

The most important spokesman for the immigration-reform bill in the Senate, Florida Republican Marco Rubio, is promoting a “myth-busting” website. No, the legislation will not offer immigrants free phones. No, illegal immigrants will not be eligible for welfare benefits.

And there’s this: No, the law does not include pet provisions for the cruise industry in Rubio’s home state. “FACT: Senator Marco Rubio did not ask for anything in this legislation that would only affect one group of people, industry, or Florida,” the website asserts. “The benefits of everything he has advocated for in this legislation would extend far beyond Florida to the rest of the nation.”

While the most common criticism of the bill is that allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship amounts to amnesty, Rubio’s rebuttal points to another high hurdle: quashing mounting concerns that the bill was written by and for special interests. Reinforcing that perception is the fact that some of the loudest pro-reform voices are members of the political, business, and religious establishment, while opposition is more common among the grassroots.

“Immigration, broadly speaking, pits the elite versus the public as much as the Right against the Left,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, who spoke at a hearing on the Senate bill earlier this week. “It’s the church hierarchies versus the people in the pews, the union organizations as opposed to the union members, big business as opposed to small business. It’s no surprise that the Republicans supporting this thing are the ones with ties to the Chamber of Commerce, not ordinary voters.”

Bridging that gap is pivotal to the legislation’s passage, and Rubio’s appeal to the conservative grassroots makes him a key ambassador. His staff has touted the relative brevity of the law at 844 pages as evidence that it is not crammed with perks for the privileged. In a whirlwind of interviews with conservative talk-show hosts, Rubio has adopted a tone of humility and continually called for an open, transparent process to allay concerns about backroom deals.

“The bill I helped write is a good starting point, but it is not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition,” Rubio wrote in a column for Fox News. “I am open to any ideas others may have on how to do this, and I’ve been listening to the legitimate concerns people have raised with the expectation that we will be able to improve the bill as this debate continues.”

Rubio’s invitations for input and demands for public hearings, however, contradict reports that suggest politics as usual on Capitol Hill.

Facebook, which launched a pro-immigration-reform political committee, maneuvered provisions into the bill that would make it easier for the company to hire cheaper foreign workers, according to The Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal reported on clauses in the legislation that would grant more visas to the meat industry in South Carolina, Sen. Lindsey Graham’s home state, and special benefits for Irish workers closely allied with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., another key player in the legislation.

“The only people in the room behind closed doors was congressional staff, big business, big labor, Silicon Valley, and a whole long line of special-interest groups,” said Rosemary Jenks, a spokeswoman for NumbersUSA, which favors more limits on immigration. “It’s very clear this bill wasn’t written to serve national interests but special interests, including the senators’ own special interests, with absolutely zero regard for unemployed American workers and taxpayers.”

It’s true that corporations, unions, and other special interests have strong financial incentives to see the nation’s immigration laws overhauled. Businesses need affordable skilled and unskilled labor. Unions need to protect their current members and recruit new ones. But opponents of immigration reform tend to overlook that the legislation was also shaped by pressure from ground-level immigration activists, including young people brought to this country illegally by their parents. The illegal status of an estimated 11 million people makes them obvious targets for exploitation and abuse.

There’s also evidence that immigration reform would benefit the economy overall, not just corporate interests. A recent study by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum and a former director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, concluded: “A benchmark immigration reform would raise the pace of economic growth by nearly a percentage point over the near term, raise GDP per capita by over $1,500, and reduce the cumulative deficit by over $2.5 trillion.”

Some polls show waning resistance from Republican voters. A survey sponsored by pro-reform groups and conducted by The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm, found that 67 percent of Republicans support the provisions in the bill—even after they are advised of a number of criticisms, including that it was written in secret and rushed. A majority of Republicans also said they think the bill will benefit the economy.

“We know the opposition is going to throw the kitchen sink at us, and we wanted to make sure we tested that kitchen sink,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, one of the survey’s sponsors. “Republicans and Democrats on the Hill have a real opening and opportunity to fix our immigration system.”

Noorani and another backer of the poll, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, rejected the criticism that the legislation was written to boost special interests. “If there are areas where there’s lack of fairness or need to make something general as oppose to specific, that can happen on floor of the Senate,” Norquist said. “It’s not like we put this together last night and you don’t have time to read it.”

Efforts to sell the legislation to rank-and-file Republicans suffered a minor setback this week when Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who boasts strong ties to the conservative grassroots, cautioned against immigration reform in the wake of the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Paul, who had suggested he was on board with reformers in a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in March, now says that “comprehensive immigration reform requires a strong national security, and until we can fully understand the systematic failures that enabled two individuals to immigrate to the United States from an area known for being a hotbed of Islamic extremism, we should not proceed,” according to written statement.

Another tea-party hero, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was initially involved in immigration talks but walked away from the bipartisan group of eight senators leading the charge in January. That left Rubio, a career politician who has pitched himself as a man of the people, as the bill’s strongest advocate to the grassroots.