By JONATHAN HOUSE
Businesses won a victory in the Senate immigration bill through measures to boost access to foreign workers. Now, they are moving to protect those provisions as they face a much tougher sell in the House.
The lobbying push started even before the Senate on Thursday passed its sweeping rewrite of immigration laws. Businesses in the agriculture, manufacturing, high-tech and other sectors are arguing that they need legislation to alleviate labor shortages restraining their own growth and their local economies.
What we’re struggling with is convincing lawmakers that there’s not a line of individuals waiting to get on our job sites,” said Jay Reed, head of the Alabama chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, a construction-industry lobbying group. “The workers have to come from somewhere.”
Also pushing House lawmakers to act are religious groups and activists who advocate for illegal immigrants and for greater immigration, as well as some Republican Party leaders who say the GOP must build new bonds to Latino voters, who back the drive for new immigration laws in large numbers.
But it is an uphill battle, despite the Senate’s lopsided 68-32 vote. Senators often feel pressure from a diverse, statewide constituency. By contrast, most House Republicans represent districts that are almost uniformly conservative and strongly opposed to the Senate bill, which offers a path to citizenship for many people in the U.S. illegally.
“The people that shape my decision on this are the people who vote for me,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R., Okla.) on Friday. “They’ve not been convinced that the Senate bill is the right answer. If you don’t change opinion in the country, you can’t change opinion on Capitol Hill.”
Rep. Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.) predicted that House Republicans wouldn’t bow to a request from business groups to expand guest-worker programs if it included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
“That’s a bridge too far.… That’s a big nonstarter,” said Mr. Salmon.
Yet Democrats are sure to reject any final package that excludes a plan to legalize many illegal immigrants.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), a lead sponsor of the Senate bill, said that the best way to overcome House resistance is for businesses and other groups in the coalition backing the Senate bill to mobilize and lobby the House GOP.
“Business, the Catholic Church, evangelicals—they are going to have to mobilize,” he said. “It’s a coalition the likes of which we had never assembled. That’s why I have the confidence we can do well with the House.”
The U.S. has nearly three million unfilled jobs, according to Labor Department data, a reflection of many employers’ difficulties in finding workers for certain roles despite unemployment sitting at a relatively high 7.6% rate nationwide last month.
Among business interests, the lobbying effort started with campaigns by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and other major groups to secure support in the Senate. The next stage likely will draw on smaller businesses, which will aim to drive home local concerns when they talk to lawmakers.
The Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association estimates that $140 million worth of onions, watermelons, cucumbers and other crops were left to rot in the fields in 2011 after restrictive immigration legislation was approved. The state is one of several to crack down on undocumented workers in recent years, moves that some businesses say made labor needs more severe.
Rumors that Georgia law enforcement had set up checkpoints on an interstate in 2011 hit the industry hard, said Charles Hall, the association’s executive director. “We had harvest crews—because they didn’t want the hassle, whether they were documented or undocumented—that were bypassing Georgia,” he said. The group is lobbying for an expansion of guest-worker programs, which would create a larger pool of legal workers for growers to tap.
Billy Lawless, a Chicago restaurateur and founding member of the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition, estimates that nearly one-third of Chicago-area restaurant workers are undocumented. Restaurant owners are looking for a system that allows them to hire these workers legally.
“Most documented workers won’t wash dishes, won’t bus tables,” he said. “For a long time, a blind eye was turned to this issue.”
The coalition of Illinois businesses advocating for immigration legislation believes its lobbying efforts helped to sway Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), who initially opposed the bipartisan Senate immigration bill. On Thursday, he voted to support the bill as it passed the Senate. Now the coalition will focus its lobbying efforts on House lawmakers.
Doug Whitley, chairman of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said that newly elected officials can be risk-averse. “We will be supportive of them. We will do events in their district and in every way try to give them a sense of comfort with the importance of this legislation,” he said.
Mr. Reed, of the Alabama construction group, recently led a delegation of around 20 Alabama builders to press the state’s senators and five House members on immigration. Chief among their goals: an expansion of guest-worker visas for the construction industry beyond the annual 15,000 stipulated in the Senate bill.
“That number would not serve Alabama and Georgia together at the moment,” said Allen Harris, president of Bailey-Harris Construction Co. and a member of the group visiting lawmakers.
Alabama construction executives say their businesses were hobbled by their own state’s passage in 2011 of immigration legislation that required schools to check the status of children who enroll and that made it a crime for individuals to harbor illegal workers. Although it was later altered, the law triggered an exodus of Hispanic immigrants.
Mr. Harris said 14 Hispanic immigrants from his 100-person staff resigned just before the Alabama law went into effect. They said they were afraid they would be singled out for harsh treatment, even though they were legal workers.
“When you lose 14% of your workforce, guess what? Every job is in trouble, every schedule now is in trouble,” Mr. Harris said. “We had to replace them, and it was very difficult for us for about three months.”
Rep. Spencer Bachus (R., Ala.) said he was open to expanding the guest-worker-quota for the construction industry, as long as it doesn’t “undermine salaries” of existing workers. He said attitudes toward immigration are changing in his central Alabama district.
“I think more and more people say the status quo is intolerable,” he said.
Rep. Jack Kingston (R., Ga.) took a different tone. He said he is sympathetic to the plight of his state’s farmers and open to discussing ways to revamp the guest-worker program for their industry.
But Mr. Kingston said he is opposed to offering legal residence to people who entered the country without authorization. He said he and his constituents are concerned that immigrants could become a burden to the state’s social-welfare programs.
“You can turn good workers into people who don’t want to work anymore,” Mr. Kingston said.
—Janet Hook contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared on The Wall Street Journal.