Originally published in CEO Update.

By Mark Tarallo

 Associations keenly interested in bills now winding through Congress

Veteran lobbyist Michael Petricone says immigration is one of the few issues that the White House, Senate leadership and House leadership all want to see fixed. And so, even though Congress is best known for gridlock these days, Petricone—along with many other association executives—has high hopes that a comprehensive overhaul bill will be approved.

“We’ve got momentum. We think something very positive is going to get done,” said Petricone, senior vice president of government affairs for the Consumer Electronics Association.

And unlike Congress’ previous large-scale initiatives, such as the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial bill, the revamp of immigration laws is not attracting significant association opposition. When the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” released its 800-plus-page immigration proposal last month (which the Senate starting marking up May 9), a range of associations praised the effort.

“The Gang of Eight’s focus on reforming our broken and unworkable immigration system is an historic achievement,” National Retail Federation CEO Matt Shay said in a statement.

“But much work needs to be done.”

And therein lies the lobbying battle: the struggle for each association to get its own desired industry-friendly provisions into the final legislation. Then those groups will push for approval to the finish line; as Petricone said of CEA: “We will support any comprehensive bill that has our specific ‘asks’ in it.”

Fighting for different things

The ‘asks’ CEA is pushing include three provisions: (1) increase the number of H-1B visas available for high-skilled foreign workers; (2) allow foreign-born, U.S.-educated immigrants to remain in America after graduation with a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) graduate degree; and (3) grant visas to foreign-born entrepreneurs who want to start businesses in the U.S., if they raise sufficient capital and hire American workers.

Other groups, such as the National Restaurant Association, share a strong interest in the proposed mandatory employer verification system, or “E-Verify.” NRA took its message to the White House in late April, with CEO Dawn Sweeney leading a delegation of NRA officers and members to meet with administration officials.

The NRA contingent spent about 90 minutes in the West Wing’s Roosevelt Room, talking with administration repre- sentatives including Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, and Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. The officials were interested in hearing NRA’s perspective, according to Angelo Amador, vice president of labor and workforce policy for NRA.

“On E-verify, we have a lot of experience. A lot of members use it already,” said Amador, who was present at the meeting. (NRA recently conducted a survey of members’ current use of E-Verify; the study found 80 percent of NRA members who currently use it—either voluntarily, or because their state requires it—would recommend it.)

NRA’s White House meeting was part of a larger “immigration week” for the group that included a meeting with some GOP members of the Senate’s Gang of Eight, including South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Arizona’s John McCain.

E-Verify is also a key proposal for the NRF. “NRF will examine the size, scope and phase-in schedule of the new, mandatory employer verification system,” Shay said.

Down on the farm

IT, retail and restaurants are not the only association sectors with a keen interest in immigration. Farm and food groups like United Fresh Produce Association, American Nursery & Landscape Association, American Farm Bureau Federation and U.S. Apple Association have joined forces to form the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, so the groups could influence the debate with a unified voice.

AWC worked with some of the members of the Gang of Eight on one of the coalition’s key priorities: establishing a new agricultural guest worker program to be administered by USDA, not the Department of Labor, according to Ray Gilmer, vice president of issues management and communication for United Fresh.

The new guest-worker program is designed to give growers more certainty about worker availability, and to assure access to a skilled and stable workforce, Gilmer said. It establishes wage rates for different job classifications, and allows more flexibility for crews to move from farm to farm, as needed.

“When Mother Nature says you have to harvest, you have to harvest that day,” Gilmer said.
Given that the AWC helped design the guest-worker provisions in the Gang of Eight’s bill, the coalition is supporting that legislation. House leaders are working their own version, which the AWC will evaluate. “The House still has a ways to go until it makes their proposal,” Gilmer said.

The power of story

The efforts on immigration by large groups like NRA, NRF and United Fresh raise a question, however: Will small associations get drowned out in the debate? Not if they leverage their stories and make a strong case in a lawmaker’s home district, says Paul Kanitra, CEO of LobbyIt.com, a nonpartisan firm that represents small association clients on both sides of the immigration issue.

To Kanitra, immigration is illustrative of the “seismic shift” taking place in the lobbying profession. The old model of “money buys influence” no longer holds sway, he argues; a group can spend millions blanketing the airwaves and inside-the-beltway publications with paid advertisements and still lose on an issue.

Now, small association members can make an effective case in the lawmaker’s home district with a compelling story of how a bill can make or break their business. This type of personalized local story is powerful, especially in the current information-saturated climate, with lawmakers buffeted by noise.

“At the end of the day, if they’re [the member] on the fence, and not dyed in the wool on either side of the issue, that’s the sort of thing he or she will remember,” Kanitra said.

Indeed, the power of story has also been acknowledged by another player in the immigration debate: the White House.

In an official White House message released May 8, Muñoz asked for citizens to submit their immigration stories for possible publication on the White House website and dissemination via Facebook and Twitter.

“Share your American stories with us, and we’ll put them to use,” Muñoz wrote.