Border Security: A US Border Patrol agent rides along the border with Mexico in California in November. Due to dueling House and Senate measures, it's unclear how much manufacturers could benefit from immigration reform. (Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Immigration reform legislation could provide an unexpected boost for defense firms, and one senior senator says pro-Republican business leaders’ political heft is needed to persuade House leaders to move a bill.
The Senate, last year, passed a sweeping immigration-reform measure that proposes $38 billion for new American-made weapon systems. But House Republicans, who control the lower chamber’s agenda, are skeptical not only about spending that much — but also about a slew of other immigration issues.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and GOP leaders say the chamber will tackle immigration reform piece by piece, rather than the soup-to-nuts approach employed by the Senate.
House Republican leaders recently released the party’s “standards for immigration reform,” a one-page white paper with six categories. The first covers “border security and interior enforcement,” which the document declares “must come first.”
But the section contains almost no specifics on how the party prefers to secure America’s borders and makes no mention of the party’s stance on the Senate’s proposed weapons purchases. It appears more interested in taking shots at President Barack Obama — and his predecessors.
“Faced with a consistent pattern of administrations of both parties only selectively enforcing our nation’s immigration laws, we must enact reform that ensures that a president cannot unilaterally stop immigration reform,” states the GOP white paper, released Jan. 28.
Still, the GOP standards were seen as a step toward actual House legislation by immigration-reform stakeholders.
“The draft Standards for Immigration Reform being debated by the House Republicans today marks important progress in ensuring immigration reform is a priority this year,” US Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue said in a statement two days later. “This is a very encouraging sign that House lawmakers are serious about fixing our broken immigration system.”
But on Feb. 6, House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, seemed to pour cold water on any notion the House would act on a comprehensive bill that might bring new business to defense contractors.
“There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws,” Boehner told reporters Feb. 6. “And it’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”
That left reform advocates, such as Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., searching for new momentum. He told Defense News on Feb. 11 he is frustrated by House Republicans’ resistance.
For their part, many important House Republicans — so long the defense sector’s closest allies on Capitol Hill — have ranged from cryptic to mum about spending nearly $40 billion on helicopters, drones, vehicles and other hardware to help secure America’s southern border.
In a statement on his website that lists his 10 biggest gripes with the Senate bill, Goodlatte never directly addresses the proposed hardware buys that would be a boon for Sikorsky, Bell Helicopter, surveillance drone makers and other firms feeling the squeeze from sequestration and declining military spending worldwide.
Asked where Goodlatte stands on the proposed hardware buys, a Goodlatte aide wrote in an email: “See point No. 3.”
That section is titled “Lack of Border Security,” and strikes a critical tone.
“While the Senate bill throws billions of dollars at the border, there is no mechanism in the bill to ensure it actually secures our porous borders,” Goodlatte writes in language consistent with the House GOP caucus’ anti-spending mantra.
The Judiciary Committee chairman also bashes the Senate measure’s “so-called ‘border surge,’ ” saying it is flawed because the 38,400 new Border Patrol agents it calls for “do not have to be deployed before 2021, which is well after unlawful immigrants receive legal status.”
What’s more, the Senate bill would allow the Department of Homeland Security to use some of the new agents to pare wait times in airports — “not to enforce immigration law, apprehend illegal immigrants, seize illegal contraband, or improve national security,” Goodlatte contends. “This is hardly a border surge.”
A long list of other House conservatives have made similar comments. And they are being pushed by powerful conservative groups such as Heritage Action, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation think tank.
“Any immigration measure would provide a vehicle for the House to commence conference negotiations with the Senate — a legislative move that the political class would undoubtedly exploit to pressure the House into accepting some form of amnesty in advance of the November elections,” Heritage Action wrote Jan. 16 on its popular blog. “Moreover, many of these piecemeal proposals are flawed in their own right.”
The blog post featured a clear “call to action” for conservatives to mount an all-out assault to kill any immigration measures from ever being crafted, much less enacted.
“Sentinels are encouraged to petition their members of Congress to attend their annual retreat on January 29th and vocally oppose any plan to unveil and pass piecemeal immigration bills during this Congress,” Heritage Action wrote.
Boehner last week allowed a clean measure that raised the nation’s borrowing limit to pass with mostly Democratic votes. But Boehner has made clear he won’t use that approach with any immigration-reform measure.
So what, if anything, might move the House Republican caucus and leadership toward acting on even limited immigration reform that might — though less so than the Senate bill — be good news for US defense firms?
McCain told Defense News last week “it’s time for all of those interests that are the base of the Republican Party to push back.”
“I’ve talked to a lot of business leaders about it,” McCain said. “And, trust me, they’re not happy with the situation in the House.”
To that end, the leading defense and aerospace lobbying group, the Aerospace Industries Association, declined to comment for this story. An AIA spokesman said immigration is not a high-priority issue for the association.
Former BAE Systems Inc. CEO Linda Hudson, during a visit to India in November, endorsed US immigration reform. But her endorsement aimed at amending the way Washington hands out visas for high-skilled workers such as engineers, which defense firms desperately need.
But the country’s leading business lobby shop, the US Chamber, will be fighting opposite groups such as Heritage Action.
The chamber is for “common sense immigration reform that strengthens border security, expands the number of visas for high- and lesser-skilled workers, makes improvements to the federal employment verification system, and provides an earned lawful status for the undocumented with no future bar to citizenship,” according to a statement on its website.
In recent months and years, chamber leaders have testified before Congress with a message of an “economic imperative for enacting immigration reform.”
“Immigration reform is an essential element of economic growth, and it will create American jobs. It will add talent, innovation, investment and dynamism to our economy,” the chamber’s Donohue said. “The time is now.”