Lobbying around immigration reform soared last year, but a concerted effort from the tech sector, agriculture, big business and labor unions couldn’t push a law through Congress.
What went wrong?
The number of registered lobbyists dealing with immigration nearly doubled from 2012 to 2013, going from 895 to 1,640. And the number of clients lobbying on immigration increased by almost 80 percent during that period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Here’s why: Congress appeared to have a legitimate chance at passing a bill last year. Lobbyists representing companies, like Microsoft and Facebook, major associations and labor unions, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO, took to Capitol Hill to make the case for immigration reform.
One of the hottest issues was an expansion visas for highly skilled workers, an acute point of interest for tech companies.
But the lobbyists weren’t able to get a bill through Congress in 2013, and the odds this year aren’t too good, either.
Getting a bill through both chambers of Congress was always going to be an uphill climb, a reality of which lobbyists were well aware.
“Most members know where they are on it, and for many it was in their first campaign platform before they ever got here,” said Carl Thorsen, co-founder of the lobbying firm Thorsen French Advocacy, who represented a number of clients on immigration last year. “It is rare that any outside advocate is going to change their mind.”
Source: Center for Responsive Politics
Lobbyists did provide value, however, in collecting information on which members were considering backing reform and advising outside groups with an interest in the issue, such as local chambers of commerce and growers associations, on how to work with them.
“If I were the head of an association that was really interested in immigration reform … I’d do an assessment of where everyone is on the Congress,” said Steve Billet, a veteran lobbyist who is currently the head of legislative affairs program at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. “And then identify people who you may be able to move on a vote like this and target them for specific meetings and information campaigns.”
The united push for a bill from business, labor and immigrant-rights groups energized supporters of reform. But it also fueled opponents’ complaints that the effort was solely driven by interest groups representing big business, labor unions and Silicon Valley.
“Is it not time for the GOP to make a clean public break from the special-interest immigration lobby and let Democrats own — solely, completely, and exclusively — the unwise and unpopular policies they are pushing on these groups’ behalf?” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a chief critic of the Senate’s immigration bill, wrote in National Review last month.
The lobbying effort wasn’t enough to keep immigration reform from sputtering in Congress, to the delight of those critics. At the same time, the failure of immigration reform may have shattered the myth that lobbyists are an all-powerful force in Washington.
“It maybe takes more than just having the right lobbyist,” Billet said. “I think you need to have legitimate circumstances surrounding an issue that suggest that what it is that they’re trying to do makes sense.”
And those circumstances have simply not aligned. The Senate was able to pass a bipartisan bill last June, but Republicans in the House have not agreed to take up the issue.
Many Republicans have acknowledged that it’s in their party’s long-term interest to pass immigration reform, as a way to open the door to winning back Latino voters. And polling indicates that broad reform is popular nationwide.
But many individual members aren’t concerned about national politics. They worry that supporting immigration reform could hurt them in their home districts, which typically have small Latino populations.
Those candidates worried about reelection aren’t usually interested in a lobbying pitch around an ideologically charged issue like immigration, according to Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics.
“Until there is maybe more grassroots activity and more change at that level, the money might not matter because politicians are unwilling to take steps to implement policies that might be unpopular with their constituents,” she said.
And in a midterm election year when the GOP has a chance of taking control of the Senate, Republican leaders have become gun shy about taking a vote on an issue like immigration reform, which could divide the party.
Still, lobbyists don’t believe their efforts weren’t all for naught. They pointed to several key members, including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who have said they want to tackle the issue. That’s a change from this time two years ago.
“They’re starting to show some results of their lobbying efforts,” said Billet, who managed various lobbying efforts for AT&T until 2002. “I think they’re likely to get something moving in the House here in the near term.”
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.