State’s Tech and Agriculture Industries Target House GOP In Immigration Reform Battle

Facebook Chairman and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg introduces Graph Search this morning in Menlo Park. Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images.
Facebook Chairman and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg is among the tech and ag industry leaders pressing Congress for immigration reform. (Stephen Lam/Getty Images)

Two of California’s biggest industries — tech and agriculture — are gearing up for an immigration reform battle in the U.S. House of Representatives. They are targeting those lawmakers who can help get a bill passed by going around the Republican majority.

The U.S. Senate passed an immigration bill before the July recess that, by and large, the high-tech and agricultural lobbies like.

Pro-immigration reform optimists say momentum is now high and different from 2007, when the House failed to pass a bill. This time, they say, Republicans will have to bend to the Hispanic vote and America’s need for human capital.

Not everyone agrees. Emily Lam, who directs federal issues at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, says, “This notion that they’ll just see the light. No way! I wish, but it’s not happening.”

Lam is taking two tacks. First, targeting the House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy. The Bakersfield Representative has a lot of influence over younger Congressional Representatives who, Lam hopes, understand that immigrants keep the economy competitive.

“Freshman Republicans are more willing to vote for something like this than some of the other House Republicans,” Lam says.

Secondly, Lam is adding evangelical ministers and agriculture leaders to her delegations of Silicon Valley CEOs making lobbying trips to Washington, D.C. She wants to show House Speaker John Boehner that there’s a united front. “I think when we go in there and we sit down with Boehner or with McCarthy, and it’s ag and high-tech, just a different configuration of people saying the same thing,” Lam explains, “[it’s] the more the merrier.”

Boehner can bring a bill to the floor for a vote, even if the majority of his party caucus does not support it. While he’s vowed not to, the California Farm Bureau Federation believes that can change. President Paul Wenger is trying to get his counterparts in the Ohio Farm Bureau to influence the Speaker from his home state.

Wenger met with them for two days, and says, “A lot of those folks have a direct relationship with the Speaker.”

While many lawmakers assume the U.S. needs high-tech talent, they don’t necessarily understand the need for seasonal farmworkers. So Wenger says he has had difficulty making that case. However, he also says the grassroots food movement that’s sweeping America is helping him. “All of a sudden we’ve got folks across this country, even in the Midwest, that are raising fruits and vegetables for that seasonal restaurant, the farmers market, the farm direct. And they found out that if you’re going to have that seasonal fresh fruit and vegetable production, you need hand labor.”

And of course, it wouldn’t be a campaign without super PACs. During the Senate debate, Mark Zuckerberg’s super PAC, FWD.us, paid for ads in support of Arctic drilling, as a thank you to Democratic Senator Mark Begich for his vote on immigration.

While the move outraged environmentalists, Dan Turrentine, Vice President of TechNet, says it’s necessary old-fashioned politics. “People may not be comfortable with the tactics, but ultimately it’s about getting results that will help the industry.”

Turrentine says lawmakers who don’t have a sizable Hispanic constituency need political cover to support immigration…and the ads provide that cover.

TechNet members like Facebook, Google and Intel worked hard on the Senate’s immigration bill. Now Turrentine expects a new effort in the House. “I think you will see a more aggressive push in the House.”

Turrentine says industries that are quintessentially Californian have to go out and convince lawmakers in other states that they too need high-tech and farmworker visas.

Note: In an earlier version of this story, due to an editing error, California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger was incorrectly identified as the President of the Ohio Farm Bureau.

Author

Aarti Shahani

Aarti Shahani is a reporter at KQED, focusing on business and technology. She came to San Francisco as a Kroc Fellow with NPR. She was part of the ProPublica team awarded an Investigative Reporters & Editors Award for Post Mortem – a series examining the unregulated coroner and medical examiner industry. Shahani got her Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, supported by the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship and a Public Service Fellowship. She studied globalization as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. She was raised in Flushing, Queens – in the nation’s most diverse zip code.

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