Exclusive: White House meets with big biz on immigration

Published on August 18th, 2014

By Anna Palmer and Carrie Budoff Brown
August 18, 2014

Senior White House officials are in talks with business leaders that could expand the executive actions President Barack Obama takes on immigration.

Obama Meets With Big Business Leaders re:  Immigration
It’s an effort to broaden the support for Obama’s decision to go it alone on immigration.

Obama was initially expected to focus only on slowing deportations of potentially millions of undocumented immigrants and altering federal enforcement policies. Now top aides are talking with leaders in big companies like Cisco, Intel and Accenture, hoping to add more changes that would get them on board.

Representatives for high-tech, agriculture and construction interests have put forward a range of fixes, from recapturing unused green cards to tweaking existing work authorization programs.

The outreach is an effort to broaden the political support for Obama’s decision to go it alone on immigration — another sign that suggests the White House fears a backlash in November, particularly among independent voters in battleground Senate races where Republicans are seizing on the issue.

“The president has not made a decision regarding next steps, but he believes it’s important to understand and consider the full range of perspectives on potential solutions,” said White House spokesman Shawn Turner. “The meetings were in keeping with the president’s commitment to do whatever he can, within the constraints of the law, to address the immigration issue.”

Turner said the meetings with business leaders were among more than 20 “listening sessions” with outside groups.

“They are very seriously looking at a big variety of things to figure out what people think would be helpful,” a source in one of the meetings said, describing the meeting as a “productive listening session.”

Senior administration officials stepped up their engagement with companies and business groups over the past month as they look to produce a series of executive orders starting in September. Aides are asking industry executives for ideas and are trying to earn their support against an expected barrage from Republicans opposed to Obama taking any action.

Obama has pledged to act by the end of the summer, but the timing is a growing concern to Senate Democrats, who fear that a sweeping program to temporarily halt deportation will further endanger their chances of maintaining control of the chamber. They are most worried about the impact on key Senate races in red states, including Arkansas, North Carolina, Louisiana and Alaska.

Obama has not yet received recommendations from his staff, and no decision has been made on how he should proceed, according to sources familiar with the process. There has been discussion both inside and outside the White House on whether Obama should wait until after the election to announce the changes to the deportation policy, the most controversial element of the plan. He could move on a smaller package, including some business fixes, before November.

Earlier this month, senior aides from the White House counsel’s office, office of public engagement and the office of science and technology policy, among others, huddled with more than a dozen business groups and company officials to discuss potential immigration policy changes they could make. Smaller meetings with the White House and Department of Homeland Security aides have continued throughout the month. Administration officials are expected to present Obama with recommendations by the end of August.

Representatives from Oracle, Cisco, Fwd.US, Microsoft, Accenture, Compete America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were among those present at a wide-ranging Aug. 1 session that went through a list of asks for the tech sector that would involve rulemaking. Executive orders were not specifically discussed in that meeting, according to one source familiar with the session.

The ideas under discussion for executive action include allowing spouses of workers with high-tech visas to work, recapturing green cards that go unused and making technical changes for dual-purpose visa applications. Agriculture industry representatives have also been included in the meetings, discussing tweaks in the existing agriculture worker program.

The administration is also considering provisions for low-skilled workers for industries, like construction, that would allow individuals with temporary work authorization to gain work permits.

“I was encouraged to hear that nothing was off the table,” said Beto Cardenas, a lawyer at Vinson & Elkins, who represents many industries in the Houston area. “It’s impressive to be able to sit with an administration that wants to listen to individuals who have a direct pulse on the economy, that have employees, in many cases thousands or hundreds of thousands, to better understand how the administration of policy can impact them.”

Immigration lobbyists said it is unclear exactly how quickly the White House will move, but there is an expectation Obama will pursue at the very least a narrow executive action as early as mid-September.

While administration officials have been asking industry for their input, there is also a significant political component of the ongoing outreach. With Republicans poised to attack any action Obama takes on immigration reform without Congress, aides are looking for business executives who could act as validators to push back against criticism.

“If the administration is going to be the one that acts, they should act in a way that serves both families and the economy,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which has tried to broaden the coalition pushing reform to include business interests. “The administration realizes that good policy is good politics.”

Scott Corley, who runs the tech industry coalition Compete America, said the group wants to review what the administration ultimately comes up with and, if it is “meaningful,” the coalition will support it.

“We know only Congress offers a long-term solution to our immigration problems. They haven’t acted, and that’s costing our country hundreds of thousands of new American jobs each year,” Corley said. “If the president offers meaningful short-term relief that ensures highly skilled job creators stay in America, of course we will support him 100 percent.”

Individual tech companies are “trying to figure out, if they are asked to stand behind the president,” what they are going to do, according to a tech industry lobbyist.

“Tech companies often are hiding behind trade associations and don’t want to be out in front themselves,” the lobbyist said.

Not everybody downtown is happy the White House is pursuing the go-it-alone strategy. Some industries, like construction, have been largely been left out of any of the discussions.

Tamar Jacoby of Immigration Works USA, whose members include many builders and contractors, said that leaving out low-skilled worker provisions would be a mistake.

Jacoby said Obama will poison the well and that “all bets are off” for any broader immigration reform if he moves forward.

“It is going to be nuclear fallout for quite awhile,” Jacoby said.

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