Profit from status quo
Immigration inaction boon for lobbyists
By Lisa Friedman, Washington Bureau
Article Launched: 08/27/2007 11:26:44 PM PDT ...

WASHINGTON - While illegal- immigrant advocates and hardliners warn that Congress' repeated failure to pass immigration law could have dire consequences for the economy, one industry is profiting handsomely from the political gridlock.
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Since 2004, lobbyists on K Street have raked in more than $8 million from companies and trade organizations seeking help bending Congress' ear on immigration issues.

The number of firms seeking help from former Capitol Hill and White House insiders has nearly doubled in the same time, and spending has soared to $2.5 million for the first six months of this year alone.

"The immigration issue is proving to be a big moneymaker for lobbyists," said Massie Ritsch, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group.

The rise in immigration lobbying might come as little surprise, since industries typically hire professional influence-peddlers whenever Congress turns its attention to policies that impact companies' bottom lines.

But analysts say issues rarely capture the attention of so many varied interest groups as the fight over legalization.
A backburner issue in Washington before Sept. 11, immigration has become one of the hottest policy fights in the country. Over the past two years in particular, Congress has debated - though never passed - changes to visa and green-card policies, as well as considered granting legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.

While agricultural, construction and restaurant-industry leaders have been at the forefront of business groups calling for reform, those hiring lobbyists on various immigration provisions also include labor unions, fashion models and even the National Hockey League.

"Immigration is one of those issues that spans many, many industries and interests," Ritsch said.

According to lobbying records compiled by Congressional Quarterly, 57 companies and trade organizations hired outside lobbyists to work primarily on immigration issues last year - up from 38 in 2005 and just 16 in 2004.

So far this year, 27 companies and coalitions have signed new contracts with lobbying firms, while dozens of others continue to retain D.C. consultants.

Contractors and restaurant- and farm-industry groups that want to increase the number of low-skilled worker visas and give the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants some form of legal status make up the greatest number of trade groups lobbying on the issue.

But high-tech firms pushing to expand the number of high-skilled H-1B visas also abound, as do defense firms hoping to win contracts for verification systems and other products.

Only a handful of organizations seeking to toughen immigration restrictions and policies to prevent illegal immigration have hired outside lobbyists.

"Immigration has always been seen as a niche issue. Now it's at the forefront of national security and economic competitiveness," said C. Stewart Verdery, president of the Monument Policy Group and former assistant secretary of Homeland Security.

These days, Verdery's clients include a group called the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, made up of dozens of construction, service-industry and agriculture trade groups - including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce - that want to see some form of legalization and an increase in the number of low-skilled worker visas.

Despite the considerable Capitol Hill savvy the groups already have, lobbyists and clients both said it sometimes still takes an insider to navigate the political labyrinth.

"Many clients find the Executive Branch process, and especially the Department of Homeland Security, difficult to understand," Verdery said. "They're looking for people to penetrate that mist."

Tim Rupli, a ex-aide to former Republican Rep. Tom DeLay and now the D.C. lobbyist for Numbers USA, which opposes legalization for illegal immigrants, agreed.

"All the great lobbying campaigns - and I think this is one of them - have a three-legged stool that they rest on: grassroots, advertising and inside lobbying," Rupli said.

Many of the high-tech firms have found an advantage in banding together in the quest for more high-skilled H-1B visas, said Robert Hoffman, co-chairman of Compete America.

The alliance includes companies such as Google, Microsoft and Intel, as well as trade groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers.

The coalition recently hired the D.C. lobbying shop of Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti Inc., whose roster includes a former chief of staff to Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, chairwoman of a key House immigration subcommittee.

"Individual companies have connections on the Hill, but they may not have connections with all 535 offices. When you form a coalition, you pool those resources," Hoffman said.

So far, however, the millions of dollars spent by corporate America on immigration has yielded few results. The most recent attempt at comprehensive immigration reform went down in flames earlier this year after opponents bombarded members of Congress with faxes, e-mails and phone calls.

Rupli gives credit to what he calls the "incredible organic strength" of Numbers USA and other hardliner groups.

Combined with inside lobbying, he said, "It was the perfect three-legged stool."

While immigration-restriction groups lacked the resources to hire D.C.'s top lobbying shops, he said they did marshal thousands of volunteers.

"We beat the insiders," he said.

Others say the fight is not quite so David-and-Goliath.

"Ideological groups don't tend to have as much cash resources as corporate interests," Verdery said. But, he said, "they are not without their own weapons."

With House and Senate leaders alike declaring comprehensive immigration reform likely dead until 2008, some lobbyists said they expect to see a decline in the number of trade groups seeking Washington representation.

Ritsch, however, said he believes the longer Congress drags out debate, the more likely groups are to turn to K Street.

And the lobbyists, he noted, will in turn make campaign donations to members of Congress - a process Washington has perfected over the years.

"Inaction," Ritsch said, "can be very lucrative."