This week, the pharmaceutical giant Merck announced it will cut 8,500 jobs in an effort to remain competitive in a rapidly changing drug industry. Earlier this year, Merck announced plans to cut 7,500 jobs, bringing the total of workers let go to 16,000. In all, Merck intends to lay off one out of every five of its employees.
At the same time, top Merck officials are urging Congress to loosen the nation's immigration laws to allow more foreign workers into the United States. In a Sept. 10 letter to House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Merck Executive Vice President for Human Resources Mirian Graddick-Weir urged that the U.S. admit more high- and low-skilled immigrants to "address the reality that there is a global war for talent" and to "align our nation's immigration policies with its workforce needs at all skill levels to ensure U.S. global competitiveness."
Merck, whose officials did not respond to requests for comment, wasn't alone in signing the letter to Boehner and Pelosi. Other companies that have laid off thousands in recent years — Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, United Technologies, American Express, Procter & Gamble, T-Mobile, Archer-Daniels-Midland, Cigna, Texas Instruments and more — are also petitioning Congress for more immigrant workers. In all, representatives of more than 100 big U.S. corporations signed the letter.
On Capitol Hill, the lawmakers who are trying to stop a Gang of Eight-style comprehensive immigration reform bill believe most of those companies support reform because they want to hire immigrants at lower wages. Watching firms fire American workers while appealing for more immigration is a disheartening spectacle.
"Senate Democrats, the Gang of Eight and the White House have all apparently decided that large corporations should be able to tailor the nation's immigration policy to suit their own financial interests," said Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, a vocal Gang of Eight opponent, in a statement. "Now it falls on the shoulders of House Republicans to do the right thing and to defend the legitimate interests of American workers."
The fear that Sessions and others have is that immigration reform is not as dead as some observers believe. The Gang of Eight bill passed the Senate in June on a 68-32 vote, but promptly seemed to disappear in the House.
Republican leaders in the House stressed from the beginning that a Gang of Eight-style comprehensive bill would have no chance. That's true, but what opponents worry is that the House will pass some sort of bill, even a limited one, that could then go to a House-Senate conference committee and eventually come out looking a lot like the original Gang of Eight bill.
Certainly some industry leaders seem to expect that. In August, the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Carl Guardino, head of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a trade association that represents hundreds of high-tech companies, saying that after meeting with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the No. 3 Republican in the House, he's pretty sure immigration reform will pass.
"Kevin is a longtime personal friend," Guardino said, according to the Chronicle. "We just met one-on-one and I firmly believe, without breaking confidences, that we are going to see deliberative and thoughtful action in the House when they reconvene in September and October. I would bet on it."
Afterward, McCarthy told the paper he didn't say that, and a spokesman said only that the House "will move with its own ideas and solutions in an incremental way when it comes to immigration." But opponents of reform know that in addition to McCarthy, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor also favors reform, as does influential House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan.
The position of House Speaker John Boehner isn't fully clear, but at the moment, the entire GOP leadership team is consumed with the fight over government spending and the debt limit. In an interview Thursday afternoon, a House Republican said of the current battle and immigration: "Until this gets settled, nothing else happens."
That could be a while. The spending and debt fight is unlikely to have a clean ending and could stretch out for months as Republicans and the White House negotiate some sort of final agreement.
But immigration reform is always in the background. This week, House Democrats introduced a Gang of Eight-style bill of their own. It's given zero chance of passage, but it will be a vehicle for Democrats, along with some Republicans, to keep up the pressure for reform. And then there is the well-funded pressure campaign from a variety of pro-reform business interests.
That's a lot of pressure. And it still might work, even though that seems unlikely at the moment. Just because immigration reform is in critical condition does not mean it cannot roar back to life.