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White House Woos Business and Labor on Immigration Revamp

Corporate leaders urged President Barack Obama to swiftly overhaul U.S. immigration laws, positioning the business community for a confrontation with House Republicans seeking to slow legislative action.

In a meeting yesterday with the president, a dozen chief executive officers stressed the economic importance of passing a comprehensive bill that includes more visas for highly-skilled and seasonal immigrant workers.

“The business community is not necessarily monolithic,” said Arne Sorenson, chief executive officer of Marriott International Inc., the biggest U.S. hotel chain. “But I think there are many aspects of the business community where we see immigration reform as being positive for our economy.”

The meeting, attended by executives including Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s Lloyd Blankfein and Yahoo! Inc.’s Marissa Mayer, is part of a White House effort to enlist the business community as an ally in its fight to get an immigration measure through Congress by mid-year and to isolate congressional Republicans who oppose pieces of the legislation.

Administration officials say public backing from business leaders for Obama’s immigration proposals will give the president leverage in negotiations with lawmakers.

Obama also is pressing to unify business and labor on an issue that has split them before.

“We are all on the same page,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation.

Bridging Differences

Trumka and other labor leaders are working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to find common ground. Differences between unions and industry over a guest-worker program for future immigrants helped kill an attempt to revamp the law in 2007.

In a sign of the hurdles still ahead, Representative Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, warned yesterday against a “rush to judgment” on the issue, saying that there are questions about how a legalization program would work.

“Are there options we should consider between the extremes of mass deportation and the path to citizenship for those not lawfully present in the United States?” asked Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican.

His question underscored the philosophical differences between the parties on immigration, particularly when it comes to granting citizenship to those in the country illegally.

Security Link

Legislative principles released by a group of four Democratic and four Republican senators last month attempted to bridge the divide by making the legalization process for undocumented workers contingent on tighter border security and better tracking of people in the U.S. on visas. A commission of governors, community members and attorneys general from Southwest border states would make a recommendation when the security measures are completed.

Proposals released by the White House don’t link citizenship to border security. Administration officials have said they are concerned that a longer process may make it effectively impossible for those immigrants to get legal status.

In his morning meeting, Obama told advocates he wouldn’t accept a “contingent, conditional” path to citizenship, said Marshall Fitz, of the Center for American Progress, a Democratic policy research group in Washington.

Business leaders, too, backed creating a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, saying that it would improve U.S. economic competitiveness and increase the ranks of workers.

U.S. Competitiveness

“I couldn’t think of a better topic that will galvanize a lot of the resources necessary in the country to improve the competitive effectiveness of U.S. business,” Motorola Solutions Inc. Chief Executive Officer Greg Brown said as he headed into the meeting.

The intensified outreach to the business community repeats a strategy the administration used during the fiscal debate at the end of last year. White House officials including the president held dozens of meetings with top executives seeking their support for a bipartisan deal to reduce the budget deficit.

Some of those same chief executives attended yesterday’s meeting, including Joe Echevarria of Deloitte LLP and Muhtar Kent of Coca-Cola Co. They were joined by Qualcomm Inc.’s Paul Jacobs, Alcoa Inc.’s Klaus Kleinfeld, Cargill Corp.’s Greg Page, Impremedia LLC’s Monica Lozano, and Jeff Smisek of United Continental Holdings Inc.

The November presidential election emboldened immigrant advocacy groups to push for granting citizenship for undocumented U.S. residents after Hispanics gave Obama more than 70 percent of their votes, helping him win a second term.

Political Strength

“We turned a corner after the November elections and we are building from a position of strength,” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza.

The growing clout of Hispanic voters has prompted some Republican leaders to soften their stance on immigration issues.

In a speech yesterday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, praised congressional efforts to draft immigration legislation, singling out proposals to grant a separate path to citizenship for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

“One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents,” Cantor said, in remarks at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington group that favors smaller government.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who helped write the blueprint issued by lawmakers, said yesterday that insistence on equal treatment for same-sex couples risks scuttling the effort to revamp immigration law if it becomes a central issue in the debate.

“If that issue becomes a central issue in the debate, it’s just going to make it harder to get done,” Rubio said at an event in Washington sponsored by BuzzFeed Inc. “There’s going to be a lot of strong feelings about it on both sides.”

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