COLUMBIA — Leaders from three of South Carolina’s largest business interests renewed their calls for immigration reform, after Republican House leaders indicated they are willing to bring the issue up for debate.
But the odds of seeing any legislation in 2014 is a long shot. Reform faces many hurdles, including a divided U.S. House and Senate and a divided Republican party within those chambers.
“We’re optimistic,” said Shell Suber, a political consultant working with business interests who support reform. “We hope this leads to something.”
Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, released a set of guiding principles to follow as he encouraged his party to take up the issue. Those principles include border security, a visa tracking system, employment verification, a priority on work visas, dealing with criminal immigrants and providing opportunity to young people who brought to the United States by their parents.
The House, however, has no interest in approving a massive immigration reform bill passed in 2013 by the Senate. That means any legislation must start from scratch.
Still, officials from the agriculture, tourism and homebuilders industries, appearing Monday at a news conference in Columbia, are pressuring Congress to act. Their push could pit politicians, who like to call themselves pro-business, against rank-and-file voters who are opposed to any reform that allows illegal immigrants to stay in the country.
Chalmers Carr, owner of Titan Farms and a member of the Palmetto Agribusiness Council, said farmers depend on immigrant workers, many of whom are undocumented. And the United States needs a new guest worker program that ensures farmers will have a steady workforce in the future.
Mark Nix, executive director of the S.C. Homebuilders Association, said his members are experiencing a labor shortage as the housing industry rebounds from the recession.
“As the economy comes back, houses aren’t getting built,” he said.
And John Durst, president of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the state’s tourism industry continues to grow, creating a need for more workers in that field.
“Now is the time for our legislators in Washington to act on this bill,” Durst said.
Any immigration reform bill would end up in the hands of U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who is chairman of the House Judiciary’s subcommittee on immigration and border security. In an email from his press officer, Gowdy said he expects discussions to continue.
“The House Judiciary Committee has already tackled some aspects of our system that are important to our economy and national security, including national mandatory e-verify, an agricultural guest worker program, STEM visas, and legislation I introduced called the SAFE Act, to ensure internal enforcement,” the email said. “Looking forward, immigration reform must include border security that is real and verifiable; internal security that includes state and local law enforcement; and a plan that works for Americans.”
One hangup for many Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., is how to deal with an estimated 11 million people who are in the country illegally.
Mulvaney and some others in his party are opposed to any bill that creates a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
“That’s a major problem,” he said. “What folks struggle with generally is rewarding people for something they should not have done.”
However, Mulvaney said he is willing to consider steps that would give those illegal immigrants some type of legal status.
Walter Whetsell, a Republican political consultant, said immigration is not high on the priority list for South Carolina’s delegation. His company, Starboard Communications, has worked for Mulvaney and U.S. Reps. Jeff Duncan and Tom Rice, both S.C. Republicans. When he polls the public about political issues, immigration is not on the radar, Whetsell said.
Politicians will listen to the business community, he said.
“I suspect they will have their voices heard, because most Republicans tend to think of themselves as sensitive to business issues and agriculture,” Whetsell said. “It’s just the volume level on other issues is more intense.”
But U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said the renewed call from Republican leadership is political theater.
“They would love to pretend they are doing something,” he said. “They’re very concerned with the Latino vote come November.”