WASHINGTON Money has played a major role in the drama to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, with millions of dollars spent in the past year trying to influence or kill proposals that could affect a variety of special interests.
As senators begin debate on the so-called "gang of eight" proposal, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people in the United States illegally, hundreds of lobbyists representing technology companies, agricultural interests and students, along with families living illegally in the United States, have thronged Capitol Hill to ensure members of Congress address their needs.
Many were in the room last week when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., banged the gavel to begin debate on more than 300 amendments intended to modify or kill the bipartisan proposal.
The lobbyists' interests are varied. They include broadening the allocation of temporary agricultural visas to include sheepherders, making it easier for U.S. companies to hire skilled foreign technology workers, permitting citizens to sponsor their same-sex spouses for legal residency, and granting special visa exemptions for performing artists.
In all, nearly 680 lobbying organizations from 170 sectors have worked to influence policy on immigration issues from 2008 to 2012, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes government transparency. The last major attempt at changing immigration law came in 2007, and failed.
This time around, the stakes are especially high for high-tech companies such as Microsoft, Google and Facebook, which spent more than $2 million each this year on federal lobbying efforts that included immigration, lobbying reports show.
Even as the nation's unemployment rate hovers at 7.5 percent amid tepid economic growth, many employers say they are desperately searching for high-tech workers and must look to foreigners to fill their needs.
The bipartisan Senate proposal was crafted by eight senators: Democrats Chuck Schumer of New York, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado; and Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida, and John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
The proposal includes a provision that makes it easier for foreign high-tech and science graduates to attain green cards and increases the number of guest workers who can be hired.
Microsoft's general counsel, Brad Smith, pleaded with senators at a recent hearing that the tech giant desperately needs foreign workers to sustain U.S. operations. The Redmond, Wash.-based company has more than 6,300 open positions.
Smith noted that while the national unemployment rate was 7.6 percent in March, the unemployment rate for computer and mathematical jobs was 3.2 percent. In Washington state, the unemployment rate for computer science-related jobs was 1 percent.
"We are increasingly grappling with a significant economic challenge," he said. "We are not able to fill all the jobs that we are creating."
Microsoft spent $8 million lobbying on immigration and other issues in 2012, and filed 33 reports that included immigration among the company's political concerns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit watchdog organization.
Former Congressional Budget Office director Doug Holtz-Eakin, who leads the conservative think tank American Action Forum, said the money being spent indicates business leaders see the potential for a possible solution.
"These are businessmen," he said. "They don't throw money at something that's not going to get done because it's a neat idea."
High-tech workers are in demand across industry sectors. More companies now have technology arms, from auto manufacturers that use software to detect vehicle malfunctions to health care companies that use software to manage medical data.
Construction manufacturing giant Caterpillar spent more than $2.5 million in federal lobbying this year on computer security, pension reform and immigration, among other issues.
Mark Peters, corporate counsel for Caterpillar, said his company has the same need for high-tech workers as companies such as Facebook and Google.
"We have 10,000 engineers, technologists and scientists throughout the world. Our equipment is far more sophisticated than people appreciate. And we just don't have enough of these high-tech engineers to build this sophisticated equipment," Peters said.
Agribusiness also has been fighting for ways to hire more foreign workers, as have service industries such as tourism and casinos.
The list of agriculture companies and associations that have their lobbyists staking out Capitol Hill includes the California Dried Plum Board, the North American Blueberry Council and the Valley Fig Growers.
The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives spent more than $320,000 on federal lobbying this year.
President Charles Conner told senators last month that finding enough workers to pick crops has become the No. 1 concern for many farmers across the country. He cited a California Farm Bureau study that said 71 percent of tree fruit growers, and nearly 80 percent of raisin and berry growers, were unable to find enough workers to prune trees and vines or pick crops.
"I dare say," Connor said, "that for many producers this immigration legislation, and this debate before us, is more important to the survival of their operations than any other legislation pending before Congress."
OVERHAUL MAY END LOTTERY FOR VISAS
In the contentious debate over immigration policy, three groups have dominated public and political attention: the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants seeking to become legal, skilled foreign workers bound for high-tech jobs and relatives waiting to be reunited with families.
Then there are those who won the green card lottery.
This tiny visa program, aimed at diversifying the pool of immigrants to the United States, selects 55,000 applicants at random each year. Unlike the other U.S. visa programs, it offers the "winners" and their spouses and children U.S. residency with almost no strings attached.
Although the odds of winning are infinitesimal, the program is so wildly popular that last year almost 8 million people applied. And now it is likely to be quietly cut.
Senators said the diversity program crumbled under Republican insistence on finding more visas for skill-based immigrants. They said it also has lost appeal by shifting from its early goals. Washington Post