The last time comprehensive immigration reform was on the table in 2013, lobbying on immigration and border issues shot up faster than the fences that now speckle the US-Mexico border.
Lobbyists who reported advocating on “border security” jumped from 146 in 2012 to 1,213 in 2013, according to disclosure reports. On general immigration issues, lobbyists nearly doubled from 875 to 1,618.
As negotiations on President Donald Trump’s long-touted campaign promise of building a border wall clash with the demand for protections of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, lobbying on those issues is once again on an uptick, Center for Responsive Politics data shows.
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Lobbyists who advocated on general immigration issues in 2017 reached 1,438 — the highest the number has been since 2013.
Border issue lobbyists are ticking up from previous years and many are beginning to lobby on new issues as well. In 2017, 77 lobbyists filed that they were lobbying on issues related to a “border wall.”
According to Meredith McGehee, a lobbyist and strategic advisor for Campaign Legal Center, those numbers are only the “tip of the iceberg” for the under-the-table advocacy that may be happening in Washington, especially on issues like immigration and the border.
“On an issue like immigration or (other) controversial issues, it’s actually politically smart to not get too high of a profile,” McGehee said. “So you want to make sure you don’t show up on the lobbying disclosure reports because either it’s an unpopular one or you figure there might be blowback.”
A 2017 report by the Center for Responsive Politics indicated that “over the last decade … hordes of lobbyists (were) deliberately moving into the shadows to avoid the consequences of registration.”
Since 2008, the number of registered lobbyists had slowly declined, though many of the people who stopped registering appeared to hold the same or similar positions with the same employers, according to the report. That decline was driven by a myriad of factors, including 2007 legislation that added more regulation to federal lobbyists, but the move was largely led by President Obama’s rule to not allow registered lobbyists in his administration.
For every one registered lobbyist, the report showed, there was at least one lobbyist who was maneuvering politics behind the scenes simply by not registering.
“If you don’t want to show up, you just don’t register,” McGehee said. “You can go to these meetings on the Hill and you’re registered. You look over and see people and they’re not registered, even though they’ve been in all the meetings you have.”
Since Trump — who has similar lobbying restrictions but may not be enforcing them — has taken office, records show that registered lobbying is once again on an uptick, but numbers of federally registered lobbyists are still diminished from what they once were.
But for some, McGehee said, it’s about keeping a low profile — especially in issues like immigration and the border where controversy is naturally built into the discussion.
And that tactic is not resigned to one party, said Carlos Paz, communications director for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
“The organizations that care deeply about immigration are clued in deeply to everything that’s happening — and that’s on both sides,” Paz said. “You have immigration advocates who are working very closely with elected representatives and the Democrats, then you have organizations on the more conservative side — NumbersUSA and FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform) — that are working very closely with their members.”
Keeping that low profile on those issues — which Paz referred to as a “messaging battle” — is fairly easy because the system is based largely on self reporting. Lobbyists are required to register if they spend more than 20 percent of their time doing so, but past instances suggest that not all who do adhere to the requirement.
“Although we do find some differences by partisanship,” according to CRP’s 2017 report, “the bigger picture is that despite denunciations of lobbyists by senior politicians in both parties, more and more lobbying goes on beyond public scrutiny, making it harder to hold those in power to account.”