WASHINGTON—The emotional debate over immigration boils down a simple economic reality for Doug Torn, who raises mountain laurel and rhododendrons in North Carolina.
"Most people don't want to get their hands dirty and sweat on the job," he said. "We use the guest worker program because we don't have the domestic workers to fill the spots."
Which is why Torn, the owner of Bud & Blooms Nursery in Brown Summit, N.C., near Greensboro, has been lobbying members of Congress to support the compromise legislation that is under consideration in the Senate. The bill seeks to strike a balance between demands for more border security and the need for a steady supply of foreign workers.
Members of Congress are sure to get an earful about the legislation during their Memorial Day recess this week—most of it negative.
The fragile compromise is under assault from a host of powerful interest groups across the political spectrum. Some want to kill it outright. Others are pushing for changes that could unravel the bipartisan agreement negotiated between the White House and key lawmakers.
Nearly everyone can find something they don't like in the complex overhaul of immigration laws.
High-tech companies want to waive visa restrictions for some well-educated foreign workers. The Service Employees International Union wants to put foreign workers on a faster track to citizenship. Conservative groups want more emphasis on border security and more restrictions on immigrant workers. Manufacturers and small-business owners want to ease the burden of having to verify worker eligibility and reduce the penalties for hiring illegal workers.
The debate is a test of Congress' ability to compromise on a tough issue during a time of bitter partisan conflict. The outcome hinges on whether lawmakers—and the voters and interest groups that influence them—can find enough in the bill that they like to offset the parts they don't like.
The bill's sponsors warn that any effort to change the legislation could upset that delicate balance and lead to the bill's defeat.
"There is a lot in this bill I don't like very much. But I know that in order to get something, you have to give something," Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., told his Senate colleagues. "If we go to the guts of the legislation and that basic agreement is destroyed, then I think we will see support for it evaporates quickly, including mine."
But compromise is difficult for groups that have been involved in the immigration debate for years.
"We didn't come this far to get half a loaf," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a group that advocates a more welcoming policy for immigrants.
Immigrant-friendly groups plan to use the weeklong congressional recess to press for changes that would ease the path to citizenship and make it easier for foreign workers to bring their relatives to the United States. But those changes could alienate lawmakers who are more interested in border security and tougher immigration enforcement.
"It's a very fragile coalition," said Heath Weems, director of education and workforce policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.
Pro-immigrant groups, banded together as the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, hope to influence the debate by sponsoring Spanish-language radio ads in 27 markets, including New York, Dallas, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Houston.
"There is now a bipartisan proposal for immigration reform in the Senate, but it needs serious improvements," one ad says. "The proposal includes legalization, but we have to fight so that this legalization is really within our reach, to be allowed to reunite with our families, and to provide rights and hope to immigrants who will follow our footsteps in the future."
The service employees union is sponsoring immigration-related events in 25 states urging its 1.8 million members to contact members of Congress by phone and in person to push for a more immigrant-friendly bill. The SEIU's ranks include janitors, security guards, nursing home employees and other low-skilled workers.
Eliseo Medina, an executive vice president at the union, said members of Congress can expect to get "thousands and thousands" of telephone calls from union members.
"We think we're in the first quarter, not the fourth quarter. There's still a lot of football to be played, and we're in it to win," he said.
At the other end of the spectrum, anti-immigrant groups are also working overtime to defeat the legislation. They are working conservative talk radio shows to gin up calls, letters and faxes to Congress opposing any guest worker program.
Only one powerful interest group—the agri-business sector—has embraced the Senate bill in its current form. Agricultural interests desperately want changes that would authorize visas for up to 1.5 million agricultural workers, including workers that Torn needs for his North Carolina nursery.
"Unfortunately, the other side is much louder than we are," said Torn, who has called his state's senators to seek their support for the legislation. "We've been down this road before. It's never going to be perfect. We've got to seek compromise."