By Annie Linskey
July 12 (Bloomberg) -- House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat in a June primary started a chain of events that led three of the world’s richest men to join forces for the first time and demand changes in U.S. immigration laws.
Sheldon Adelson, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, worth a combined $184.3 billion, published an op-ed in the New York Times yesterday asserting that Americans are getting “shortchanged” by members of Congress who refuse to bring an immigration bill to the House floor.
The article was a sequel to one Adelson penned nine days after Cantor’s defeat by a Tea Party candidate who took an anti-illegal immigration stance. The Adelson op-ed caught the attention of Buffett and Gates, and they asked him to team-up for the piece in the Times.
“Most Americans believe that our country has a clear and present interest in enacting immigration legislation that is both humane to immigrants living here and a contribution to the well-being of our citizens,” they wrote.
The missive caught the attention of lawmakers from both parties, as the three men also are some of the nation’s most prolific political donors. Adelson, 80, gives to Republicans; Buffett, 83, mostly backs Democrats; Gates, 58, cuts checks to candidates and committees from both parties.
The initial op-ed by Adelson, published in Politico, urged action on immigration even though Cantor’s opponent in Virginia’s June 10 Republican primary -- little known college professor Dave Brat -- had pummeled him on the issue to achieve his stunning upset.
“As a Republican, it’s my view that efforts to complete immigration reform should be led by our party,” wrote the casino magnate who, along with his wife Miriam, gave nearly $100 million to Republican candidates and committees during the 2011-2012 campaign season. “Some on the outer fringes of the GOP may disagree, but the truth is we are humans first and partisans second.”
The message echoed sentiments from an interview Adelson had given in December 2012 to the Wall Street Journal. Yet this time it was aimed directly at Washington insiders and thus included an important subtext: This most generous of Republican donors would be there for those who took a risk and acted on an immigration bill, said a person familiar with Adelson’s strategy who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about it.
Though House Republicans didn’t heed Adelson’s message, Buffett and Gates took notice.
Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., and Gates, the former Microsoft Corp. chairman, have lobbied together for increasing taxes on the wealthy. They wanted Adelson to join them in writing an op-ed on immigration for a larger audience, according to a person familiar with the talks among the men who wasn’t authorized to discuss their collaboration.
Gates and Adelson have a relationship that extends more then 30 years: The Microsoft founder was an early participant in a Las Vegas trade group founded by Adelson in 1979 called Comdex. It sponsored what was for a time the most-attended information-technology trade show in the world.
“He was an annual keynote speaker for many years,” John Pinette, a Gates family spokesman, said in an e-mail.
Gates has long backed revising U.S. immigration policy, arguing the current system hampers efforts to recruit a sufficient number high-tech workers.
Testifying in 2008 before a House panel on Science and Technology, Gates said: “The U.S. immigration system makes attracting and retaining high-skilled immigrants exceptionally challenging for U.S. firms.” He added, “Other nations are benefiting from our misguided policies.”
Buffett also has some history on the issue. His son Howard Buffett operates a farm in Decatur, Illinois, and has seen how tightened immigration rules are preventing neighbors from finding help to harvest crops.
Howard Buffett’s foundation has financed ads in agriculture publications where farmers discuss labor shortages, according to an article in the Chicago Tribune. The younger Buffett told the newspaper that his farm is automated and doesn’t rely on seasonal labor.
Warren Buffett didn’t respond to a request for comment sent to an assistant.
Adelson’s views on immigration were less known until recently, and his decision to ally himself with Gates and Buffett has given a bipartisan punch to their message.
He’d taken some criticism from his own party after his interview with the Wall Street Journal. Ann Coulter, a prominent Republican author and commentator, questioned his motives, saying Adelson would benefit from expanded immigration by having access to larger pools of cheap labor to staff his casinos.
In a column, she blasted his views as “an especially telling example of the self-interest of businessmen on immigration.”
Adelson was unmoved by the criticism, and signed onto yesterday’s op-ed anyway.
Thought their article attracted attention, it doesn’t appear the trio had an impact -- at least in the short term.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has taken immigration off his chamber’s agenda, and his caucus is resisting President Barack Obama’s request for $3.7 billion to respond to a surge of undocumented children gathering on the nation’s southern border.
Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman, said the immigration issue isn’t coming up time soon in the chamber.
“The speaker wants to deal with our broken immigration system for many reasons,” Steel said in an e-mail. “But -– at this point -– the American people, and their elected representatives, simply don’t trust that the president will enforce the law as written.”