Immigrants' List and ImmigrationPAC, both established less than four years ago, have raised $100,000 combined this election cycle. That's a relatively small amount in the influential realm of PACs but still more than established groups that back enforcement-only policies, who have seen donations slow to a trickle.
"Even a small amount of pro-immigration reform PAC money, pro-immigration muscle, makes it a two-sided debate," said Tamar Jacoby, who heads ImmigrationWorks USA, a federation of mostly small and medium businesses that support a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants and streamlining the employment visa process.
The power of PACS goes far beyond their direct contributions to candidates. They also wield power by bundling smaller donations from individuals nationwide and directing those funds to politicians sympathetic to their causes.
The PACS - formed by immigration lawyers and other immigrant advocates - are among pro-immigrant groups seeing donations on the rise. Large foundations are donating millions to nonprofits that work with immigrants, although that money can't be used for campaigns.
Allen Brandstater, head of the PAC Americans Against Illegal Immigration, acknowledged the changing mood. His group, which raised $850,000 during the 2008 election cycle for mostly issue ads and mailers, the most of any of the immigration PACs, is "pretty much dormant right now," he said. Brandstater blamed the lack of support on the weak economy and on President Barack Obama and the Democratic-led Congress, which he believes are more likely to back legalization.
Brandstater also lamented that some donors have grown wary about associating themselves with his organization because of what he said was negative publicity in 2008.
"In the last election, you were called racist if you wanted to protect the sovereignty of our borders," he said.
Miami-based immigration attorney Ira Kurzban co-founded Immigrants' List, the nation's first major PAC to support legalization and other efforts to help U.S. residents and asylum seekers, in 2006. Kurzban says he looked around and saw nearly half a dozen political fundraising groups dedicated to enforcement-only immigration policies that appeared to have the ears of lawmakers.
Two years later, immigrant advocates in Illinois started ImmigrationPAC, now run by the Raben Group, a New York-based lobbying firm.
So far this election cycle, Immigrants' List and ImmigrationPac have raised $81,000, compared to about $71,000 by three enforcement-only committees, according to Federal Election Commission data compiled by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. That's minuscule compared to the National Rifle Association's PAC, which has $7.4 million in the same period, or to the financial might on both sides of the health care debate.
Still, Jacoby said she is seeing growing cash support from businesses. And major donors such as the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and liberal financier George Soros' Open Society Institute have also allocated more to immigrant advocates and their allies.
Maria Teresa Rojas, who manages the Open Society Institute's immigration portfolio, said her foundation alone has allocated an extra $15 million to be spent over the next three years "to take advantage of what looks to be a historic opportunity to reform our immigration system." She cited the combination of a Democratic president and Congress.
Kurzban's group would like amnesty for those already in the U.S.; waivers for laws that automatically bar illegal immigrants from returning to the U.S.; statutes of limitation on some low-level crimes; overhaul of the visa system to accommodate changing demand (such as allowing India to have a few more spots than Switzerland); permission for illegal immigrants married to U.S. residents to adjust their status; and greater judicial oversight of rogue immigration agents.
Winning on any of those points will be a challenge. Enforcement-only PACs have been operating in Washington since the early 1990s. And there's no clear sign that the Democratic-led Congress has the stomach for a tough immigration debate any time soon, though the Obama administration has signaled that it wants to take up the issue next year.
Amy Novick, who heads Immigrants' List, said she is preparing for a long fight. Most of the initial donors to the committee were immigration lawyers. Now the group is looking to take a page out of the Obama campaign playbook, tapping into small, online contributors.
"There are tens of thousands of people in the U.S., citizens and residents, who have been touched by the immigration system," Novick said. "Their spouses, siblings, children may be here legally but may be stuck in the backlog and need relief."