White House Woos Hispanic Leaders in Immigration Push

Hispanic business leaders will descend on Washington this week for an all-day meeting hosted by top administration officials as President Barack Obama seeks to maintain congressional momentum for immigration legislation even while saying little about the issue publicly.

The immigration bill is Obama’s best chance of a major legislative victory in his second term. So, he’s been choosing his words carefully -- or often, not at all.

Obama has taken just one immigration-focused trip this year, traveling to Las Vegas to outline his views in January. In recent appearances in Austin, Texas, and Baltimore, he’s not mentioned the topic at all, focusing instead on the economy.

The May 29 meeting, the inaugural event of the Hispanic Business Leaders Forum, underscores the cautious strategy Obama has adopted to push for his top domestic priority. While Obama remains quiet in public, his staff is escalating a private White House campaign to build support for the bill.

At the same time, the White House is also working to stay close to a constituency that backed Obama by 71 percent in the last election -- no matter what the outcome of the immigration bill on Capitol Hill. While immigration is certainly on the agenda for this week’s meeting, White House officials stress that the administration is engaging Latino executives as national business leaders who care about the nation’s pressing economic issues.

Potential Backlash

Obama’s approach to the immigration bill is an acknowledgment that support among Republicans, whose votes are crucial to passage, will be weakened if the bill is too closely allied with the Democratic president.

“He could have just come in and said, ‘Look this is my priority and I think I won the election by virtue of the fact I’m for it,’” said Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. “But the political reality that he’s reading is that he would have had this immediate backlash.”

Seventy-five business leaders are expected to attend the event, held in conjunction with the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew is scheduled to discuss the economy, domestic policy adviser Cecilia Munoz to brief participants on the implementation of the health care law, and Chief Technology Officer Todd Park to detail the administration’s open data initiatives. Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett will offer opening remarks. Administration officials said they expect detailed conversations about taxes, economic competitiveness, and other fiscal issues.

Executive Attendance

Attendees will include Joe Echevarria, chief executive of Deloitte LLP, Gustavo Arnavat, executive director of the Inter-American Development Bank, Kimberly Casiano, president of Casiano Communications, the largest Hispanic-owned publisher in the U.S., and Linda Alvarado, president of Alvarado Construction and the owner of the Colorado Rockies baseball team.

The wide-ranging group and the schedule go beyond just another meeting of supporters eager to push the revamp of immigration laws, which the president has largely left in the hands of allies on Capitol Hill -- at their request.

As a bipartisan Senate working group began drafting a bill earlier this year, Democratic allies asked Obama to keep a low-profile on immigration legislation, warning him that strong statements could make it impossible for Republicans to embrace a bipartisan agreement.

No Win

“They don’t want to give the president a win,” said Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, in an interview on Capitol Hill earlier this month. “That’s part of the reality of this town.”

Some supporters, though, said strategy carries significant political risk.

The president and his team followed a similar playbook in their push for gun control earlier this year. That effort ended in defeat when the Senate voted down a stripped-down version of Obama’s plan. Democratic supporters criticized the president’s decision to stay quiet, saying he didn’t fight push forcefully.

“If the bill does go down he’s going to be blamed,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a Washington-based immigration advocacy organization. “He was re-elected with strong support from Latino and Asian American voters and he could be setting himself up for the accusation that he didn’t fight hard enough.”

In an effort to stave off those claims and build backing for the bill, White House officials have been working quietly to shore up support.

Frequent Calls

There are near-daily calls with people and groups that have a stake in the outcome.

On May 7, White House aides, including Munoz and Park, hosted a roundtable with officials from 25 different business, technology, and university groups. While the advocates pressed for increasing the number of visas available for high-skilled workers, White House officials pushed the groups to take their pro-immigration message across the country, according to attendees.

The effort reaches across departments, with lower-level officials fanning out to events across the country promoting the immigration overhaul. Earlier this month, Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, hosted an interactive town hall meeting about streamlining technology visas at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business with executives from local startups.

On May 13, Mark Doms, the undersecretary of economic affairs at the Department of Commerce, addressed an immigration forum at the St. Regis in Aspen, Colorado, hosted by the Aspen Institute. He shared the stage with Ari Matusiak, the director of private sector engagement at the White House.

Senate Vote

The president has held White House meetings with supporters, most recently hosting Asian-American leaders on May 8 and Latinos on April 29. In those sessions, he’s urged them to back the bill even if they had concerns about the details, stressing the importance of a large vote in the Senate, according to a participant who asked for anonymity to discuss the private meeting.

The Senate Judiciary panel approved that chamber’s proposal earlier this month and the full Senate will debate the measure in June. A bipartisan House group has reached an agreement in principle on its own immigration proposal and will start preparing legislation.

The Senate legislation is similar in approach to what Obama outlined in Las Vegas, though there are some key differences. The Senate bill makes citizenship for undocumented immigrants contingent on securing the U.S. border, which Obama’s plan does not. It also doesn’t recognize same-sex couples, a proposal Obama supports.

Administration ‘Engaged’

The White House has stressed that the president remains in constant contact with key lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“A lot of work remains to be done,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary told reporters this month. “We’re engaged in this process with the Senate and monitoring very closely the developments.”

Obama has long struggled to strike the right balance with Congress. During his first two and a half years in office, he was immersed in legislative wrangling, meeting quietly to convince lawmakers to pass the health care bill, economic stimulus package, and Wall Street regulations.

After talks to strike a debt deal with House Speaker John Boehner failed in 2011, Obama switched to what aides call an “outside-in” strategy of using public rallies to pressure lawmakers.

Guns Loss

Still, he lost on his first big initiative of his second term: Tougher background checks for gun buyers. That measure, a stripped-down version of the gun control package initially proposed by the president, failed when five Democrats and 41 Republicans voted against the bill.

Supporters say the politics of immigration differ from that of gun issues, largely because there’s more Republican support for taking up the issue.

The November election changed the political calculus for Republicans, who watched as 71 percent of Hispanic voters sided with Obama. Even in the House, where immigration legislation faces a steeper fight, the proposals have won praise from Speaker Boehner and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Republicans involved with the effort have praised Obama’s approach, saying they’ve kept the president briefed on their progress and in return he’s left them to their work of building support for the measure in the Senate.

“He’s trying to grow the vote,” said Senator Lindsey Graham in an interview earlier this month on Capitol Hill. “He has tried to give the Democrats cover and give Republicans the space they need to get to yes.”

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