As Congress readies for a drawn-out immigration debate, an expanding network of Republican fundraisers is pressing for a path to legal status for millions of immigrants living in the United States illegally.
Business leaders and donors who raised tens of millions in the last election are meeting with top GOP fundraisers and Republican lawmakers who may be reluctant to support what critics call "amnesty" for immigrants who broke the law.
At the same time, a coalition of fundraisers who support overhauling immigration is funneling donations to a new crop of outside groups designed to protect like-minded congressional Republicans who fear a backlash by GOP's core supporters.
In most cases, the donors have ties to Wall Street and businesses that want more high- and low-skilled immigrants in the nation's legal labor pool. Backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, these business-minded Republican fundraisers say they're getting a relatively receptive audience in the face of an undeniable new political reality. Record Hispanic turnout helped President Barack Obama defeat Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney last fall. And projected population growth ensures that immigrants' political clout will grow stronger.
The network of Republican donors is at odds with many on the GOP's right flank - tea party activists among them - who argue for increased border security first and foremost. That was largely the position of Romney, who encouraged immigrants without legal status to "self-deport."
"Immigrants are an important part of this economy and they're an important part of my business," said Frank Vandersloot, an Idaho businessman who steered more than $1 million to a group backing Romney last year and gave tens of thousands more to others.
"I have met with many members of Congress and will continue to," Vandersloot said. "People will talk to me. And I'm grateful for it. I'm grateful they listen."
Top donors have signed onto a new bipartisan group known as the Partnership for a New American Economy, which includes business leaders and mayors who support a path to legal status for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire, backs the organization, as does top Romney backer Bill Marriott, Jr. - who heads the Marriott International hotel company - and GOP donor Jonathan Johnson, the CEO of Overstock.com.
"These are people that can and do donate," Johnson said. "I think the more business leaders get involved in this, the more pressure will be put on Congress."
Congressional leaders are putting the finishing touches on legislation that would outline the most sweeping immigration changes in decades.
The donors mostly refused to identify the lawmakers they are lobbying but said they're communicating with as many Republican elected officials and new party fundraisers as possible. The list includes already-sympathetic figures such as Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is among four GOP senators and four Democrats crafting a bill to improve border security, streamline legal immigration and offer eventual citizenship to millions now in the U.S. illegally.
A similar proposal favored by former President George W. Bush failed in 2007 following intense opposition from conservative opinion leaders.
In some cases those opinions have begun to soften. Vandersloot said that congressional Republicans have been receptive behind closed doors, although strong opposition remains among the GOP's most passionate voters.
By boosting their role in the debate, major donors hope to assuage the fears of timid congressional Republicans worried about losing re-lection - or facing primary challenges - should they side with Democrats on immigration.
Obama and the bipartisan Senate panel publicly support legalization, although the fate of the overhaul is uncertain in the House, where conservative Republicans hold more sway. Donors say they don't expect a speedy resolution to the debate. They're preparing a network of outside groups and donors to be active well into next year if necessary.
Still, some donors say there has been a wholesale attitude shift among Republican officials during private conversations.
"People are starting to understand that immigration is one of the issues that allows Republicans to have a comeback on all issues," said Charlie Spies, the founder and treasurer of the super PAC that raised more than $142 million to help Romney's 2012 presidential bid.
Spies leads a new super PAC dubbed "Republicans for Immigration Reform" that draws from some of the same Romney donors to fund advertising campaigns designed to protect Republican lawmakers who support more lenient immigration policies. The group, which can accept unlimited donations along with its sister non-profit organization the Hispanic Leadership Network, has already spent $60,000 to run ads in South Carolina to commend Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham's efforts.
At the same time, Spies says
that his partner Carlos Gutierrez, the commerce secretary under President George W. Bush, is hosting private meetings with Republican officials and Republican donors who may not have been supportive of immigration reform in the past. Gutierrez is hosting multiple meetings a week across the country, targeting places with the highest concentration of donors - New York, Florida, Texas and California.
"Money is effective in that it helps drive a message," Spies said.