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Immigration Issue Shows Big Money Doesn't Always Win In D.C.

The crowd cheers speaker Glenn Beck (not pictured) during a Tea Party rally to "Audit the IRS" in front of the U.S. Capitol on June 19.
Gary Cameron
The crowd cheers speaker Glenn Beck (not pictured) during a Tea Party rally to "Audit the IRS" in front of the U.S. Capitol on June 19.

Big Money often gets what it wants in Washington. But not always.

In few policy debates is that more true than in the proposed overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

The big donors and corporate leaders of the Republican establishment mostly favor remaking U.S. immigration laws to give those now here illegally an eventual door to citizenship and to increase the annual quota for guest workers.

A letter sent by major GOP donors, business chiefs and political strategists Tuesday to House Republicans underscores as much. Among the signers of the letter from Republicans for Immigration Reform: sugar baron Pepe Fanjul Jr.; Charles McNeil, CEO of NexGen Resources, an energy company; and Karl Rove, who needs no introduction.

An excerpt from the letter from Republicans for Immigration Reform:

Standing in the way of reform ensures that we perpetuate a broken system that stifles our economy, leave millions of people living in America unaccounted for, maintain a porous border, and risk a long-lasting perception that Republicans would rather see nothing done than pass needed reform. That is not the path for the Republican Party.

It may not be the path for the party as a whole, but that doesn't mean it isn't the path for some Republican members of Congress. They might invite a primary challenge if they voted for any legislation that gave legal status to immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.

The current effort recalls the push by major GOP donors and the business lobby, often one and the same, to support earlier efforts to revise immigration laws in 2006 and 2007. In 2006, there was an open letter to Congress from a group of Texas business types urging lawmakers to pass legislation to revise the immigration laws.

Those attempts during the Bush administration came to naught; there was just too much grass-roots opposition to the notion of giving legal status to immigrants who either entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas.

Much money has been spent since the last immigration overhaul go-round. The Sunlight Foundation estimates that between 2008 and 2012, more than $1.5 billion has been spent on immigration lobbying. "We count 6,712 quarterly lobbying reports filed by 678 lobbying organizations in 170 sectors mentioning 987 unique bills, associated with more than $1.5 billion in lobbying spending," the foundation wrote.

But the chances of an immigration overhaul seem no less fragile now than seven years ago. Indeed, they might even be worse. The last time a comprehensive revision of the nation's immigration laws was being discussed, the Tea Party movement didn't exist.

The Tea Party wasn't there to threaten primary challenges to Republican incumbents who support "amnesty" for immigrants. It wasn't there to ensure that GOP lawmakers clearly heard the fierceness of the opposition to providing a citizenship pathway.

This explains the timing of Tuesday's letter. Lawmakers are heading home to their districts for the August recess. As Carlos Gutierrez, a Bush administration commerce secretary and former Kellogg Co. CEO who heads the Republicans for Immigration Reform, told CNBC: "The month of August is very key because they go back home and they go to town hall meetings and they hear from the extreme hard-liners, the anti-immigration [side] ..."

That's what Big Money is trying to overcome. But while it has money on its side, as we've seen before, that doesn't mean it will have the votes at the critical moment.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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