WASHINGTON – Tech industry giants are beginning to mobilize their deep K Street networks to pressure lawmakers as Congress tries to address the legal status of undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.
A week after the sector’s top brass, such as Microsoft President Brad Smith, lambasted the Trump administration’s decision to rescind an Obama-era program for those young undocumented immigrants, tech industry lobbyists are looking for a way to turn their bosses’ words into a strategy on Capitol Hill.
A fix won’t come easily, even though Democrats and many congressional Republicans say they want to safeguard the roughly 800,000 people known as Dreamers, now protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Immigration policy cuts to the heart of a divide within the GOP, pitting the party’s pro-business roots against its populist, anti-globalization faction that helped fuel President Donald Trump’s rise to the White House.
“Everyone’s trying to figure out, if you’re going to do something for Dreamers, what does that look like?” said Stewart Verdery, a Republican lobbyist with the Monument Policy Group, whose clients include Amazon and Microsoft.
“What is the package of things that is passable?” he added.
Tech companies might be OK with pairing a DACA fix on some, but not all, stepped-up border security measures and are unlikely to buy into a sweeping overhaul that would decrease the overall number of legal immigrants, such as a bill from Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton.
Trump said Thursday that he and lawmakers were “working on a plan for DACA,” adding, “We’re going to get massive border security as part of that.”
Congress is unlikely to move on a 1,000-page comprehensive immigration overhaul along the lines of major bills that were debated, but not enacted, in 2013 and 2007. Those efforts sparked an uptick in federal lobbying on immigration policy, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The number of clients reporting that they’ve hired lobbyists to work on immigration this year is on pace to exceed 2013, when a Senate-passed bill got nowhere in the House. Microsoft, Google and FWD.us, an advocacy organization founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and others, are among those with the most lobbyists involved in immigration.
On the other side, the Federation for American Immigration Reform says the tech sector makes for a deep-pocketed opponent.
“They have money, lots of it,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for FAIR, which seeks to reduce both legal and illegal immigration. Still, he said, “the alarm they’re sounding over this seems a bit overblown.”
Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, said his organization is urging lawmakers to pass a bipartisan bill by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., that would give permanent legal status to DACA recipients. That measure, like its predecessors dating back to 2001, is dubbed the DREAM Act, which is how the name for DACA recipients has evolved.
“Right now, passing the DREAM Act or some other permanent bipartisan solution is our top priority,” Schulte said. “We are currently mobilizing. We have supporters working in 30 states around the country, having direct conversations with lawmakers and raising up along with faith leaders and CEOs.”
Lobbyists say they are working separate groups of lawmakers over the issue including Democrats who have been outspoken in support of granting legal status to childhood immigrants.
On the GOP side, lobbyists and their allied activists are starting with Graham and others, such as Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado.
Flake and Coffman have thrown their support behind proposals that would grant legal status to Dreamers. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates both Flake and Coffman’s re-election races as Tilts Republican, so neither are expected to breeze to victory. Lobbyists will target them with a focus on mobilizing their potential voters.
K Street also is focusing on Judiciary Committee members, as well as those in leadership, since lawmakers could hitch a DACA fix to a year-end spending deal in December.
Tech companies are leaning on their associations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to make this a priority, said Tim Day, who runs the chamber’s Technology Engagement Center.
“It’s starting to take form,” Day said. “You are seeing engagement from companies, and different interest groups are taking the bull by the horns.”
Microsoft’s president, for one, said Congress should make a DACA resolution a higher priority than a tax overhaul. Microsoft employs 39 people who have received deportation relief and a work permit under the program, according to company spokeswoman Christina Pearson. Microsoft employs about 70,000 people in the United States.
“Since last week, Microsoft’s DC team has reached out to a majority of Congress urging its members to quickly pass new legislation to protect DREAMers,” a Microsoft spokesperson said.
An estimated 6,000 DACA recipients work in computer and mathematical occupations, according to research by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
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Google spokeswoman Riva Sciuto said the company didn’t have any specifics to share about its strategy, other than urging Congress “to take quick action to enact a permanent legislative solution.”
Though the strong outcry among technology CEOs, especially Smith of Microsoft, has baffled some observers, lobbyists say such outrage bubbles up from rank-and-file employees, who view this as an emotionally charged issue – rather than a purely bottom-line matter.
“They see this as a straight-up fairness issue,” said Republican Bruce Mehlman, a partner with Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, whose lobbying clients include the Technology CEO Council and Adobe Systems. “You will find every tech company and a large number of other sectors affirmatively lobbying Congress to legalize the immigration status of the Dreamers.”