Obama courting CEOs on immigration widens conservative split, raises issue of corporate motives

President Obama's courting of top U.S. executives this week to help get the Republican-controlled House to pass immigration reform is furthering the divide among conservatives, with a top GOP senator and others suggesting corporate America is lending its support with hopes of getting more access to low-cost immigrant labor.

The president said before the White House meeting Tuesday that he and others who support comprehensive immigration reform passed in the Senate know the “politics are challenging” in the House and that they “want to make it as easy as possible” for Speaker John Boehner to get enough votes for passage.

However, that McDonald's Don Thompson and Marriott’s Arne Sorenson, whose companies depend on low-skilled inexpensive labor, were among those at the meeting has raised questions from some conservatives, especially at a time when millions of Americans remain out of work.

“Many of the same corporations demanding more immigrant workers are laying off American workers,” Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, told FoxNews.com. “House Republicans should tell the White House simply: We work for the American people, not this group of CEOs.”

His concerns follow those of others conservatives including three members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, including Commissioner Peter Kirsanow. They wrote in a letter earlier this year to the Congressional Black Caucus that granting legal status to illegal immigrants “will likely disproportionately harm lower-skilled African-Americans by making it more difficult for them to obtain employment and depressing their wages when they do obtain employment.”

And a Kirsanow spokesman said Wednesday the commissioner is considering additional efforts -- with just a handful of scheduled working days left before the end of Capitol Hill’s legislative session.

Supporters of the Senate plan -- which includes a guest-worker program for lower-skilled laborers and a pathway to citizenship for some of this country’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants -- would improve the economy.

The White House said before meeting with the CEOs that “common-sense” reform would in part cut the deficit by nearly $850 billion in the first 20 years and grow the economy by about $1.4 trillion over the same period.

However, the American Conservative Union along with roughly two dozen conservative leaders and others sent a letter Monday to House members encouraging them to pursue their more step-by-step approach toward reform that would begin with border security. But they also argued the need for a policy that “allows for a growing economy.”

The group has joined religious leaders as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other conservatives in efforts over the past couple of weeks to get the House to vote on reform.

Boehner has express a willingness to address the issue, but House leadership has made clear it will not meet with Senate negotiators and  risk ending up with a comprehensive bill going to Obama’s desk nor bring any legislation to a full floor vote without the support of the Republican caucus -- which includes a small-but-powerful group of conservatives with all 435 chamber members up for re-election next year.

Marriott and its franchise hotels employ roughly 325,000  workers in the United States.

Sorenson made clear the company’s interest in June when he wrote in a blog: “The fact is that in some U.S. destinations, we struggle to find people to take the entry-level jobs that our hotels need to serve our guests. This is particularly true in seasonal, resort destinations with small local populations.”

In a forum that same month, he said the problem was most acute in such places as the Colorado ski resorts of Aspen and Vail, where Marriott hotels need “ski bums” to fill those jobs. He also said about one-third of Marriott employees were born outside the United States but that he didn’t know their legal status.

“It’s a hard sell to say what we need is a lot of low-wage labor coming in,” say Steven Camarota, the research director for the Center for Immigration.

He also argues that real wages haven’t increases in 20 years, when considering inflation, and that the hotel lobby is on the record for saying it needs guest workers.

McDonald’s employs an estimated 760,000 workers in the United States.

This summer, employees and their supporters staged protests in cities across the county to call for higher wages. The workers want to be paid $15 an hour, which is more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.