Why Business Is Running Scared

The way Doug Torn sees the immigration debate is pretty simple. Torn, the owner of a 30-employee nursery outside Greensboro, N.C., says Congress must pass reform legislation now. Half of Torn's employees are foreign-born Hispanic or Vietnamese and on temporary agriculture visas, a "cumbersome" system. But what's more important, he says, is to "bring people out of the shadows" and allow them to work legally. He's doing his part to make that happen, traveling recently to Capitol Hill to lobby the state delegation along with 20 sod producers, landscapers, and others from back home. The reception, though, was quite chilly. "They say 'people call in'" against the legislation, but for Torn the math is pretty simple: If one constituent calls in, that's one person; if one business owner calls in, he is representing all of his employees, too. "Industry should carry more weight," he says, "but I think, in truth, they don't. The business community has not been that vocal."

Perhaps no one has a bigger stake in reforming the nation's immigration laws than American businesses. Industries from agriculture to construction to high tech all depend heavily on immigrant labor, legal or illegal. Yes, their representatives are walking the halls of Capitol Hill to win votes, but immigration is a vexing issue. It dominates talk radio and cable TV-cue Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs-and has splintered the Republican Party. The result: Big business, unaccustomed to losing in Washington, finds itself playing defense, accused of supporting "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. How well business parries those attacks and makes its case in coming weeks will go a long way toward determining if any new immigration policies are written before the next president takes office in 2009.

Bargain. The current immigration debate is the result of months of back room negotiations between the White House and a handful of senators of both parties. The "grand bargain" legislation that emerged has plenty of critics; several amendments threatened to kill the compromise just last week. For business, the legislation would help provide a reliable stream of workers. The Labor Department estimates that at least half of the 1.8 million American crop workers are undocumented immigrants. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington think tank, foreign-born Hispanics make up 20 percent of the construction industry's workforce. Among other provisions, the legislation would tighten border security, increase the number of visas for high-tech skilled workers, grant most of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the country legal status, and create a guest-worker program that would require immigrants to return home eventually (box, Page 21).

The business community has organized around a few umbrella groups, but there is no one really in charge-and that may be part of the problem. "You have coalitions of coalitions," says Ralph Hellmann, a lobbyist at the Information Technology Industry Council. The Essential Worker Immigration Coalition focuses on policy for skilled and unskilled labor. The Compete America coalition includes high-tech companies like Google and Microsoft. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has played a leadership role on immigration legislation for years. All the groups say they're committed to enacting a reform bill, but they all have problems with parts-different parts, in some cases-of the current compromise legislation. High-tech groups, for instance, are focused on getting more visas for high-skilled immigrants like computer programmers.

To some observers, business's troubles are a matter of political will. "They haven't tried" to fight back the amnesty charges, says one observer of immigration debates. Unlike their opponents, who focus exclusively on immigration, business groups see immigration as one among many issues-such as healthcare, trade, and taxes-they need to confront simultaneously. What's more, business, accustomed to aving cozy ties with all wings of the Republican Party, is now faced with a wedge in its traditional base. "The free-market Republicans are almost at war with the law-and-order Republicans," says Hellmann. Adds Craig Regelbrugge of the American Nursery and Landscape Association: "Half of your best friends are suddenly your enemies."

Hesitance. A few prominent CEOs, including J. W. "Bill" Marriott Jr. and Bill Gates, have staked their ground, called for reform, and stood up to the "amnesty" rhetoric. But business is not exactly on an airwave offensive. "I don't sense that the business community's approach," says Bernadette Budde of the Business Industry Political Action Committee, "is if there is one screaming voice out there, we need to have another to counter that." For lobbyists trying to press their case to uncertain politicians, though, it's sometimes just plain difficult to get businesses to sign letters and go public. "This has been a very hard issue for business to come out on," says John Gay, a lobbyist at the National Restaurant Association and cochair of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition. "People are worried about attracting enforcement attention to themselves."

One upshot of that unease: The business lobby's pockets haven't been very deep on immigration. Last year, when some top Republican strategists tried to mount a public campaign to promote Bush's immigration policy, their fundraising goal was $3 million. That's pennies, if you consider that in Missouri last year, supporters of embryonic stem cell research spent more than $30 million statewide. But still, the effort fell short. Gay says that in the past couple of years, the essential worker coalition has probably spent less than $1 million. And it's unlikely business is about to launch a massive campaign. "We're not about to drop a $10 million ad buy," he says.

Lawmakers headed home for the Memorial Day recess can be sure they'll hear an earful about immigration-they'll get "creamed on this issue," in the words of one Republican Senate aide. Anti-immigration groups are scoping out schedules and asking politicians where and when they'll hold town hall meetings. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham's experience may be instructive. He's been a big booster of the immigration deal, but when he returned home recently for the state GOP convention he was booed. Unless there's more cheering for immigration reform in the coming weeks, its chances may be dimming.

By Silla Brush, with Kenneth T. Walsh and Paul Bedard