Immigration reform advocates are fond of citing broad support for their cause. But in fact the coalition behind the Senate Gang of Eight comprehensive reform bill is fragile and loosely cobbled together. How could Big Labor and the Chamber of Commerce and the tech world and Big Agriculture all unite behind one bill? Very tentatively.
It wouldn't take much to break the coalition apart. And if that happens, the effort to enact comprehensive immigration reform could blow up, not just for the moment, but for some time to come. And there are signs that is exactly what is occurring now.
Compete America is a group that calls itself the "leading advocate for reform of U.S. immigration policy for highly educated foreign professionals." Its members are some of the biggest names in the tech world: Amazon, Facebook, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft and many others.
The companies, as well as other high-profile groups, like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's FWD.us, have given millions to the cause of comprehensive immigration reform. The main reason is that they want an expansion of the H-1B visa program that allows high-skilled immigrants into the United States, thus expanding the labor pool for tech companies.
Of course, comprehensive immigration reform involves much more than H-1B visas. But the tech giants supported comprehensive reform, with its increases in unskilled immigration, its legalization of currently illegal immigrants, its path to citizenship, its byzantine agricultural provisions and much, much more because they wanted the H-1B boost.
For a long time, opponents of comprehensive immigration reform have thought: Why shouldn't the Republican-controlled House pass an H-1B expansion as a stand-alone bill? If the tech people got what they wanted, would they — and their millions of dollars — really stick around to fight hard for the rest of comprehensive reform? Passing an H-1B bill would be an excellent way to split the fragile pro-reform coalition.
Now, it looks as if that could be happening. On March 19, the executive director of Compete America, Scott Corley, published an op-ed urging lawmakers to pass the SKILLS Act, which is a measure to increase H-1B visas. "There is widespread agreement among both parties and in both chambers of Congress that high-skilled immigration is good for the economy," Corley wrote. "Congress needs to act now."
The move set off alarm bells among Democrats. If the tech people were to pull out, and take their money with them, or even if they just lost their passion for the fight — where would that leave the tenuous reform coalition? In a much weaker position.
So on Tuesday, an unhappy Senate Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin wrote to the tech CEOs saying Senate Democrats will not -- no way, no how -- support a standalone H-1B bill. "It was my understanding that high tech was committed to supporting [the Gang of Eight bill] because the industry's top priorities are addressed in our legislation," Durbin wrote. "I am troubled by recent statements suggesting that some in the technology industry may shift their focus to passage of stand-alone legislation that would only resolve the industry's concerns."
Durbin slammed Corley's op-ed as if the techies had moved over to the dark side: "This 'divide and conquer' approach destroys the delicate political balance achieved in our bipartisan bill," Durbin wrote, "and calls into question the good faith of those who would sacrifice millions of lives for H-1B relief."
"Sacrifice millions of lives"? That's pretty strong. It's hard to believe the big-donor tech firms will like hearing themselves referred to as dream killers, or maybe real killers, or whatever Durbin meant.
Now it is Speaker John Boehner's move. If the House were to pass H-1B expansion, the GOP would win support from at least some in the tech world. And Democrats would be standing in the way of admitting more high-skilled workers into this country.
The nervous tech types aren't the only weak links in the comprehensive immigration reform chain. For example, the Gang of Eight bill contains long passages of excruciatingly detailed text laying out pay rates — to the penny — negotiated by union and agricultural interests. It stipulates, for example, that produce graders and sorters will be paid $9.84 an hour in 2016, equipment operators $11.58 in 2015, and nursery and greenhouse workers $9.64 in 2016. And much more.
Even if the House were to pass an immigration bill, if it did not contain every bit of that carefully negotiated labor-management agreement, would those interests still support reform? The unions might abandon the project, just as they did in 2007.
The bottom line is, comprehensive immigration reform is a classic legislative Jenga game. Pull out one stick, and the whole thing comes crashing down. And that could be about to happen.