Decision Makers: Gallegly in House of Representatives, Sperling in White House

By David North on January 11, 2011

There have been two recent Washington personnel decisions that may impact the making of immigration policy, one in the legislative branch, the other in the executive.

Lamar Smith (R-TX), incoming chair of the House Judiciary Committee, contrary to many expectations, has named longtime Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-CA) as chair of the immigration subcommittee; Steve King (R- IA) an equally conservative member and until recently the ranking Republican on that subcommittee, had been thought to be in line for the position.

Meanwhile at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue President Obama has chosen Gene Sperling, a one-time Bill Clinton staffer, to be Chairman of the National Economic Council, an entity which has a hand in immigration policy.

Many observers feel that the choice of Gallegly over King was a matter of style, rather than substance. Both men are among the 38 returning House members that Numbers USA, the restrictionist lobby, regards as "true reformers" but Gallegly is rather more restrained, verbally, than King, and as one headline put it, "Brash congressman won't lead immigration panel." King at one point advocated an electrified fence along the southern border, a statement that inflamed some Hispanic leaders.

Gallegly, first elected to the House in 1986, had previously been mayor of Simi Valley, Calif., one of the most conservative areas in the Los Angeles region; it is, among other things, the site of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. For several years Gallegly sat next to Smith when the latter was chairman of the immigration subcommittee.

Gallegly, though he once championed a specialized legalization program for foreign farm workers, a policy favored by California agribusiness, took the restrictionist position regarding the extension of the national immigration law to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He did so back in 1994 when those islands were strewn with exploitative sweatshops; it took Congress more than a decade before the INA was extended to the CNMI.

Sperling's appointment did not strike me as immigration-related until I saw the angry reaction to it in Immigration Daily, an electronic trade paper for the immigration bar. That publication remembered him as the White House staffer who negotiated some restrictions on the use of the H-1B program by a small subset of H-1B employers those regarded as dependent on the program. This minor, but useful, provision was extracted by Sperling in exchange for monstrous, short-term increases in the H-1B quotas, which have now returned to the old level of 65,000 a year.

That reminded me that Sperling has replaced Larry Summers, one-time President of Harvard University, a major institutional user of the H-1B program, as Chairman of the National Economic Council. The Immigration Daily memory, and the fact that Sperling replaces Summers, are, of course, nuances, in an open-doors-leaning White House.

Nevertheless, it is helpful to have in place a major White House figure who has, in fact, reduced the adverse impact of one temporary foreign worker program.