WASHINGTON -- An unorthodox coalition of conservative leaders – pastors, tech moguls, tea party farmers and the sheriff from Fresno County, Calif. – converged Tuesday on Washington to make the conservative case for an immigration overhaul.
It’s likely to be the last, best effort to convince Congress to vote on immigration legislation before lawmakers are consumed by the re-election campaign next year.
The massive effort comprises more than 600 conservatives from across the country who spent Tuesday on Capitol Hill meeting with about 150 members of Congress, primarily Republicans, and urging them to press their leaders to act on immigration this year.
With remnants of the partisan government-shutdown battle lingering, tackling immigration could be a chance for lawmakers to do something positive, said Bruce Josten, the head of government affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
But it also might deepen divisions between more moderate Republicans who support an overhaul and hard-liners who oppose anything that can be perceived as rewarding those who entered the country illegally.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a business executive who’s been leading the immigration push, has said it’s time to remind members of Congress that their support comes with conditions.
“The sand in the hourglass is running low,” John Feinblatt, Bloomberg’s chief adviser, told hundreds of attendees at a morning conference at the Chamber of Commerce’s offices. “Doing nothing just risks the world passing us by. Our message is loud. It’s clear. It’s simple. And if Congress doesn’t listen, they can rest assured that our support may not be there in the next election.”
The immigration supporters are a large group with many different interests whose members acknowledge that they disagree over specific details of the type of makeover they’d prefer, notably whether a path to citizenship should be included. But they said they’d come together over the mutual goal that Congress needed to have a real debate.
This summer, the Senate passed a bill that would strengthen border security and provide a path to citizenship. But the Republican-led House of Representatives appears to have no intention of taking up the Senate’s proposal. Instead, it’s focused on a series of bills that tackle specific aspects of the debate, but the GOP leadership has yet to bring the measures to the floor for a vote.
With millions of Americans still out of work, some leaders fear that the changes would only increase competition for jobs.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said many business leaders who were lobbying Congress on Tuesday had been laying off American workers.
“This is a defining moment for the House Republicans,” he said. “They must decide who they represent: certain activist CEOs lobbying Congress, or the national interest and the millions of Americans struggling to get by in this low-job, low-wage economy.”
Some business leaders have argued that out-of-work Americans have rejected many low-skilled jobs, such as agricultural work.
More liberal advocacy groups have led most immigration pushes of this size. They appealed to members’ sense of compassion, arguing that current deportation laws divide families. They warned of a growing Latino voter base that might be more favorable to the party that appears to share its priorities.
But this week’s coalition is different, drawing from groups that Republicans long have counted on for support and money, including Southern Baptist pastors, business leaders and operators of big agriculture interests.
Large “help wanted” signs –“Buscas trabajo?” or “Seeking work?” – can be found in front of fruit and vegetable farms up and down Highway 1 throughout California.
The Western Growers Association says farmers average a 20 percent shortage of labor. Some have had no choice but to move operations abroad.
Tom Nassif, the president of the California-based association, told McClatchy that while his group supported a path to citizenship, some form of legal work authorization was a good alternative.
Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims told the audience at the chamber that immigration was a public safety issue. She said many immigrants were afraid to report crimes because they feared, even as victims, that they could end up being deported. She said the relationship must be improved, and she disagrees that providing a path to citizenship is rewarding them for breaking the law.
“I call it a reboot of our system,” Mims told McClatchy.
About 20 business and faith leaders from North Carolina took part in the effort Tuesday, including Associate Pastor David Marshall of First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, homebuilder Tim Minton and Nash County sweet potato farmer John Barnes.
Barnes, who has one of the largest sweet-potato farm in the country, estimates that about 500 of his 600 workers are immigrants. He said they told him that what workers who were in this country illegally wanted most was to no longer work in fear. He said they wanted to be able to obtain driver’s licenses and to know that they could come and go from their farms without having to worry about being stopped by police and deported.
Barnes, who’s donated to several members of Congress, is confident that the members will listen to him.
“I’m their constituent,” he said. “I employ a lot of people. I do business with a lot of people who directly or indirectly are their constituents. And I think they know that what I’m telling them is not a lie.”
Barnes and his wife, Lisa, a county commissioner in Nash County, met with North Carolina Republican Reps. George Holding and Renee Ellmers.
Ellmers, who last year opposed President Barack Obama’s executive order blocking deportations of undocumented youth, sent a letter to the House leadership last month in support of an immigration overhaul. She told the group Tuesday that fixing immigration was a priority, but because of the recent shutdown Congress would be unlikely to address immigration until early next year.
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