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September 30, 2014

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Report: Immigration policy touches many sectors, draws varied lobbying interests

Comprehensive reform effort watched by many industries with different goals

A new report from the Sunlight Foundation explores lobbying on immigration issues from various organizations, and helps to explain why a comprehensive reform package has been elusive.

At the beginning of the year, in the wake of President Barack Obama's reelection, immigration reform was moving with a full head of steam. Obama gave a speech demanding action in Las Vegas Jan. 29, and committees in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have been working on proposals while organizations from around the country scramble to have their opinions heard.

Some Republicans have argued for a piecemeal approach that breaks reform into several different bills, while Democrats have mostly championed the "comprehensive" approach of tackling everything from seasonal employees to high-skilled work visas and a program for young immigrants residing in the country illegally all at once.

Republicans say some measures could be passed swiftly if the bill were broken up, while the stickier debates could be separated out. Democrats counter that breaking immigration reform into pieces jeopardizes some of the proposals that Congress will not have the will to tackle once the easier stuff is out of the way.

"We weren't able to do much last Congress. People were trying to do things piecemeal," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in February. "We're not going to do anything piecemeal, that's over. We're going to do comprehensive."

When politicians speak of immigration reform it covers a broad swath of policy that affects everyone from computer companies to dairy farms and universities.

Not surprisingly, the people showing up in Washington D.C. to lobby on immigration also represent a varying set of interests.

On Monday, the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to government transparency, issued a report detailing lobbying efforts on specific areas of immigration law.

From 2008 to 2012, 678 lobbying organizations from 170 sectors weighed in on 987 unique bills regarding immigration, for a total lobbying expenditure of $1.5 billion, according to the report. A total of 3,136 lobbyists have reported lobbying on at least one immigration issues since 2008.

Different industries will invest heavily to influence one area of immigration policy, and ignore other areas, the report shows. With so many different interested parties and specific pieces of law that fall under the immigration umbrella, it comes as no surprise that momentum for immigration reform has sputtered as the legislative committees have gotten into the dense thicket of specific policy decisions.

One example of this push and pull came this week. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO have both publicly supported the effort to pass a comprehensive immigration reform package this year. However, The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the two influential organizations are now fighting over how wages for foreign workers will be set.

The report identifies six "hotspot" areas of immigration policy attracting the most lobbying interest, including bills designed to streamline the H-2A agricultural worker program, an exemption for H-2B visas that would allow non-agricultural seasonal businesses (such as resorts or forestry companies) to hire immigrant workers, reform of the high-skilled employee visa program and employee eligibility verification system, and lobbying around the DREAM Act legislation.

For each category, the top industries in terms of lobbying efforts are identified. For example, minority organizations and universities have been very active in advocating for the DREAM Act, while real estate agents, hotels, and florists, among others, have been asking for the exemption for seasonal workers.

The report is accompanied by an interactive graphic, which allows you to explore the immigration interests of various sectors and how much money is being spent on each issue.

While there are "clusters" of lobbying activity around immigration policies that can be grouped together, the total picture is quite chaotic.

"When we zoom in, we see much more messiness: lots of sectors, lots of bills, lots of interests, and many overlaps and tangles. In other words, a lot of clamoring is about to take place," Lee Drutman and Alexander Furnas of the Sunlight Foundation wrote in their analysis.

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