As a bipartisan group of U.S. senators hash out a plan for comprehensive immigration reform, lobbyists have been combing the halls of Capitol Hill to push their agenda.

From the tech lobby advocating for more visas for foreign skilled workers to groups who are trying to derail immigration reform because they claim it would put American workers out of jobs, in the last four years 3,136 lobbyist groups registered with Congress for nearly 700 immigration-related clients, according to a study by government watchdog group Sunlight Foundation.

Decades ago, when immigration first became an issue, lobbyists represented mostly migrant workers or farming communities. Now, while many companies are shelling out big bucks on immigration lobbying, technology companies seem to be the biggest spenders on the issue.

The new lobby shows who much companies like Microsoft are pushing for immigration because they’re looking for highly skilled immigrants.

- Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation

“The folks that pushed for immigration reform in the 1990s were mostly from the agricultural business who wanted low-skilled labor,” said Bill Allison, the editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation. “The new lobby shows how much companies like Microsoft are pushing for immigration reform because they’re looking for highly skilled immigrants.”

Microsoft’s 68 lobbyists on immigration have been especially concerned with the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Act, which would remove various restrictions on immigration for foreign college graduates in those fields.

In November, the House approved the Republican-sponsored STEM Jobs Act, by a margin of 245 to 139, eliminating the diversity visa program and reallocating up to 55,000 new green cards – the document that establishes legal permanent U.S. residency – for foreign students who graduate from U.S. universities with advanced degrees

“Many of the world’s top students come to the U.S. to obtain advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects,” said Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, the bill’s sponsor. “We could boost economic growth and spur job creation by allowing American employers to more easily hire some of the most qualified foreign graduates of U.S. universities. These students have the ability to start a company that creates jobs or come up with an invention that could jump-start a whole new industry.”

The addition of more jobs to the country’s recovering economy has been the technology lobby’s main argument in terms of immigration. A study by the Kauffman Foundation, an economic think tank based in Kansas City, estimated that more visas for immigrants could generate 1.6 million new jobs through the start-up companies they create.

Lobbyists on the other side of the issue, however, argue that more immigrants in the country mean less jobs for the public.

“We take into account what’s good for the American people and not for big business interests or ethnic special interests,” said Rosemary Jones, who oversees lobbying for the immigration restriction group NumbersUSA.

Unlike Microsoft, Qualcomm and other technology companies arguing for more visas, advocacy groups like NumbersUSA, and even DREAMers, don’t have the deep pockets to make the political campaign contributions that have become so vital to getting an agenda heard, groups claim. Instead, these groups said they must rely on sit downs with lawmakers and arguments that they have the American public on their side.

“Most of our lobbying is grassroots lobbying because we don’t have the budget that Microsoft has,” Jones said. “We get a pretty good reception because we’re working for the American public and not just for special interest groups.”

The public sentiment – and there are passionate feelings on both sides of the political aisle – may be more important than what beltway lobbyists can contribute to campaign finance when it comes to highly charged and politicized issues like immigration. Some say letters, protests and other grassroots efforts may be more effective in persuading lawmakers to vote one way or the other on certain bills – especially immigration-related – than lobbyists.

“When you have an emotional issue, members of Congress pay more attention to their constituents than they do to money,” Allison said. “If you can get the grassroots movement going, then it gets the American public involved.”

Allison added that with immigration, the future of a comprehensive reform bill is more likely dependent on public sentiment, while the exact details of the bill can be pushed for by lobbyists.

“The outside game is worked out by the grassroots groups,” he said. “While the inside game, like the 20,000 STEM jobs, those details are left to the inside game.”

Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.

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