Washington may be a partisan mess, but business owners want a fix to the broken immigration system, and politicians are starting to listen.
About three weeks ago, House Speaker John Boehner said he would never introduce a Senate bill on comprehensive immigration, even though it had passed by a wide majority in the upper house in June.
But the speaker reversed course last Thursday and spoke of his willingness to enact changes, saying immigration reform was definitely "not dead." He suggested that the House might take up immigration in a series of smaller bills. Despite bitter bipartisan bickering over most everything these days in Washington, there's a growing consensus that reform needs to get done.
That will mean a great deal to fast-growth companies in hot sectors such as technology, which are short on skilled workers. But it will also affect smaller businesses that depend on agricultural workers or similar laborers, such as farms and landscaping companies, which rely primarily on undocumented workers.
"The average voter thinks the immigration system is outright broken, so [House Republicans] realize they have to be able to claim some comprehensive victory, even if it is passed in parts," says Dan Siciliano, an immigration expert and professor at Stanford Law School. If they don't, he says, they are in danger of losing support from Latino and business voting blocks.
One of the sticking points from the Senate bill had been the amount of power allocated to the executive branch, which must implement whatever is passed. The bill would allow the executive branch to perhaps deemphasize such things as building a border fence, while also pushing measures such as granting citizenship to underage immigrants. By breaking the bill up into pieces, Congress would maintain more control over key provisions, Siciliano says.
There are more than 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., according to Pew Research Center. Immigration reform would include an accelerated path to citizenship for many, but it could also beef up security along the border, streamline an immigration system that forces highly qualified workers to wait more than a decade for citizenship, and put into place a federal worker verification program.
To the tech sector, enacting legislation soon is critical. "The talent Silicon Valley companies lose on a daily basis is costing us dearly," says Emily Lam, senior director of federal issues for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a tech-business group that focuses on immigration reform. "If [reform] doesn't happen this coming year, we may wait many more years, and at that point Silicon Valley may not be 'Silicon Valley' anymore given that our success is built on human capital and innovation."
Immigration reform hasn't been undertaken since 1986, when Congress reached a bipartisan agreement that provided citizenship to less than 5 million undocumented immigrants.
The majority of U.S. citizens today favor new immigration reform, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, which issued a report on Monday. It found that 60 percent of Republicans, 57 percent of Independents, and 73 percent of Democrats favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Majorities of white, evangelical and mainline Protestants, as well as religiously unaffiliated people, support immigration reform, as do majorities of residents in states with the biggest immigrant populations.
Nearly 60 percent of U.S. citizens say the immigration system is completely broken, and 41 percent said it should be an immediate priority for President Obama.
Business lobbying groups see an opening, and they're hoping to get immigration reform passed sooner rather than later.
"The fundamentals for reform are strong and both parties want to get this done, and we think that there is no reason to wait," says Todd Schulte, executive director of Fwd.Us, an immigration-focused business group founded by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Linkedin's Reid Hoffman, and other tech luminaries.
To draw attention to the shortage of documented technology workers, Fwd.Us recently held a "hackathon" with undocumented programmers who had come to the U.S. as children. They were charged with trying to come up with ways to solve the government gridlock over immigration using technology. Silicon Valley Leadership Group, an immigration-reform policy organization, says it will hold two similar hackathons in December.
Other small business groups, such as the American Nursery and Landscaping Association, plan to get active in the coming months as well, by lobbying Congress and rallying constituents. "In the agricultural sector, we are increasingly seeing labor shortages, losses, and management decisions to scale back," says Craig Regelbrugge, vice president of government relations and research for the AMNLA in Washington, D.C.
"I don’t see farmers, faith leaders, and business people letting up [on their demand for immigration reform] in 2014," Regelbrugge says.