By more than a 5-to-1 margin, campaign contributions from J.W. Marriott Jr. are flowing toward Republicans this year. For his generosity, the Marriott International Inc. chairman may find the party thwarting changes in immigration law his company wants.
Should November’s election give Republicans control of at least one chamber of Congress, though, some of the party’s leading lawmakers say their focus will be on border security, not the immigrant-worker changes the businesses are seeking.
“You have to secure the border before you do anything else,” said Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican in line to become House Judiciary Committee chairman if his party wins the chamber.
The business viewpoint was pressed Sept. 30 by News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, who urged House Judiciary subcommittee members to work on a bipartisan overhaul of immigration policy that includes “an end to the arbitrary immigration and visa quotas.” Republicans on the panel, including Smith, voiced skepticism, saying lower-skilled U.S. employees could see their wages fall if more legal foreign workers are allowed in.
Corporate lobbyists say they will have to forge new relationships in Congress to advance their immigration agenda.
“We’re going to have our work cut out for us in making our case” that lifting current caps on legal immigrant workers “is an important part of maintaining our technology leadership,” said Paula Collins, vice president of government relations at Dallas-based Texas Instruments.
The business agenda calls for increases in worker visas for skilled and unskilled labor, and more employment-based “green cards” -- proof of permanent residency in the U.S. that can allow for a lifetime career.
Technology companies such as eBay Inc. and Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. are among those urging Congress to lift the cap on H-1b visas for skilled workers. The annual limit has been at 65,000 since 2004, after expiration of a temporary increase from 2001-2003 that raised the cap to 195,000. In fiscal 2010, the cap was reached in nine months.
Companies also want to lift the limit on employment-based green cards, now set at 140,000.
At Cognizant, which has been in the top five of U.S. employers seeking green cards for workers for a decade, the company begins seeking permanent status for workers as soon as they get an H-1B temporary visa, said Robert Hoffman, vice president for global public policy. The workers then wait in a “legal and professional limbo” for five years or more, he said.
The restaurant and hotel industries have different needs focused on seasonal, lower-skilled workers. Jonas Neihardt, a lobbyist for McLean, Virginia-based Hilton, is pushing for a simpler system to verify the legal status of workers, and a boost in H-2b visas for non-farm seasonal employees that is now capped at 66,000. Neihardt is urging the changes be made before the U.S. economy improves.
“We’re anticipating when things get better we’ll need more of those types of workers,” Neihardt said.
The political giving by J.W. Marriott Jr. this year includes $53,100 to Republican Party committees and candidates, compared with $9,600 to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“Like the wide scope of views in both parties, his contribution decisions are not solely made based on the issue of immigration, but on a range of issues,” Thomas Marder, a spokesman for the Bethesda, Maryland-based company, said of his boss’s donations.
Campaign contributions by political action committees at Marriott and other companies affected by immigration limits divided more evenly between the parties, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Marriott’s PAC so far this cycle has given $171,300 to federal candidates, with 50 percent going to Republicans and 48 percent going to Democrats.
Hilton’s PAC donated $69,260, with 51 percent given to Democrats and 40 percent to Republicans. Santa Clara, California-based Intel’s committee gave $279,300 to candidates, 57 percent to Democrats and 43 percent to Republicans. And Texas Instruments’ committee donated $48,130 to candidates, with Republicans getting 52 percent and Democrats 48 percent.
Senate Democrats in April outlined a rewrite of immigration law that, along with pushing a crackdown on drugs and illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, proposed changes that included a pathway to permanent legal residency for some of the estimated 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S. It also called for a new three-year visa for temporary, low-skilled workers with an annual limit that adjusts with the economy, and immediate green cards for foreign students who get advanced degrees in engineering or math from a U.S. college.
The effort was hamstrung when Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, stopped working with Democrats on a compromise, urging them to wait until 2011.
Smith, the Republican House member from Texas, said in an interview that while he would favor holding hearings about foreign worker visas and other immigration issues, he wants to draft legislation only on border security next year.
Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican leader who worked with Democrats in 2007 on a comprehensive immigration bill that failed, said he won’t support anything beyond border security until the fight against illegal immigration improves in parts of his state. Apprehensions in the Yuma sector dropped 94 percent over four years to 7,000 in 2009, signaling progress in stemming illegal crossings. Still, Kyl said, apprehensions “hovered” around 242,000 in the Tucson sector.
“There has to be more of an effort to actually secure the border -- not just to spend money, not just to say we have more resources than ever before,” he said in an interview.
Kyl also said companies must realize that the recession that began in December 2007 and became the nation’s worst since the Great Depression changed the immigration debate.
He said labor unions are more opposed to expanding the pool of foreign labor now than before. “The temporary-worker program has gone backwards in terms of a consensus,” Kyl said.
Compounding the challenge for businesses, some senators seen as possible supporters of a comprehensive measure -- including Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana and Republicans George Voinovich of Ohio and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire -- decided against seeking re-election this year and are retiring.
What’s more, next year’s Senate may include Tea Party- backed Republicans who favor intensifying the illegal- immigration crackdown before grappling with related issues.
A key backer of insurgent candidates in the Republican primaries has been Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a founder of the Senate’s “Border Security and Enforcement First Caucus.” He has shown a willingness to use delaying tactics to kill legislation he doesn’t like.
“If Jim DeMint is king of the next Congress, that’s not going to bode very well for immigration reform,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a business group pushing for revisions of immigration law.
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