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Lobbyists assess success crafting immigration bill

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The U.S. Senate’s  “gang of eight” Wednesday released its 844-page comprehensive immigration bill. 

There have been meetings and phone calls and piles of fact sheets from lobbyists — all directed at members of Congress who are shaping immigration reform. Democrat Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles is a negotiator on the House bill, which is still being shaped. He says you know when you’re "close to something really happening when all the special interests come out of the woodwork."

Now that the Senate has introduced its bill, much of the effort is focused on the House. Becerra wouldn’t name any particular special interests, but he says if you "look at the places where there are dollars involved, principally when it comes to workers coming in the future through these guest worker programs," you can get a sense of who’s starting to lobby for or against certain things.

The Senate bill allows 110,000 visas for high-skilled workers the first year, going up to as many as 180,000 in future years.

Emily Lam is senior director of federal issues for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents 375 companies, including Google, Facebook and Yahoo. She says companies will be "really happy." Tech giants spent giant money lobbying Congress last year: $8 million just by Microsoft. Lam says her industry for years has requested an increase in the number of visas for engineers and computer programmers.

During this session of Congress, more than 48 tech company leaders have made their way to Capitol Hill. She says of the almost 80 visits that the group had with members of Congress in mid-March, "I only heard from two people saying that they didn’t feel good about comprehensive immigration reform."

Both the United Farmworkers and the Western Growers Association also like the Senate bill, which includes 112,000 temporary work visas – or “blue cards” – for agricultural workers.

But not everyone is happy.

The legislation creates a new category for workers without college degrees, called “W-visas.”

Bill Good, with the National Roofing Contractors Association, calls it "a positive step in a good direction."

The NRCA spent $600,000 in 2012 lobbying Congress on immigration. The problem with the Senate bill, Good says, is what he calls an “artificially low number” of “W-visas” – 20,000 the first year, rising to 75,000 down the road. 

"For an industry like ours that’s going to mean a very, very limited number of workers at a time when a lot of our members are having a hard time finding workers," said Good.

 Good blames the smaller number of visas for lower-skilled workers on successful lobbying by organized labor. But he says the construction industry is hopeful it can push Congress to set the number on “what the market needs.” And if the Contractors Association does not get what it wants, will the group still support the bill? Good thought about it for a bit, finally concluding, "I’m sure that we will."

One group that will definitely be fighting the measure is Numbers USA, which wants to shrink both legal and illegal immigration. Roy Beck, the organization’s president, says, "it really does make me wonder if these Senators have been in another country the last five years,that they don’t realize that we’re still in the middle of the worst job situation since the depression."

Numbers USA spent 600,000 last year on its lobbying efforts. Beck says the strategy now is to mobilize his group’s million-plus members to call and write their own members of Congress.

Lobbying on the pro side will continue as well.

Emily Lam from the Silicon Valley Leadership Group says tech firms will be back on the Hill before final votes.

"To hear it go from, ‘sorry, you have no chance’ to ‘this is our time’ – and I feel good about this," said Lam. She said there are still "many political landmines between now and this bill getting signed." But Lam said she's "still heartened that this could be it."

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings Friday and Monday on the immigration bill.