Immigration TV: Get ready for the ad blitz

Immigrants await their turn for green card and citizenship interviews at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Queens office on May 30, 2013 in the Long Island City neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

Immigration legislation in the Senate passed a big hurdle this afternoon, a vote to allow debate on a bill that allows many of the 11 million undocumented workers in the country to apply for citizenship, among other provisions.

Union groups support it. And just to nudge today's vote in the right direction, it bought a bunch of TV ads.

In the ad wars, the Service Employees International Union is unusual. As a labor group, it will disclose spending on ads like this one:

SEIU ad: I've been in the U.S. Navy for 10 years. Career Army. United States Air Force. The best thing about being in the military, you really have a strong sense of duty and honor. Our immigration system is broken, and it's hurting our country. Congress needs to do their job. They're our leader, they need to be leading. It's time to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

For now, SEIU says it's spending seven figures. More details will come later.

Still, SEIU ally Ali Noorani at the National Immigration Forum casts his side -- supporters of the bill -- as financial underdogs.

"The other side has outspent proponents of immigration reform pretty significantly over the past decade," Noorani says. "Only now are we starting to catch up. But I think more importantly, now you've conservative faith voices, you've got business, you've got labor, you have law enforcement, all making their opinions known in paid advertisements."

Noorani casts the pro-legislation forces as a broad coalition. His group is linked to a Republican hedge-fund manager. Another GOP-leaning group, Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, just paid $100,000 for print ads promoting legislation. Tech entrepreneurs like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg are putting in, too, to promote the reform effort.

On the other side, there are groups like NumbersUSA.

NumbersUSA ad: Jobs. 20 million of our friends, family and neighbors still can't find one. Young adults are wondering if they'll ever be financially independent. So why is Congress thinking of giving 33 new work permits to foreign job seekers? That's like putting the entire population of Canada in line for American jobs.

Numbers USA is reportedly backed by a Michigan doctor.

Overall, who is spending how much is largely unknown. The Citizens United Supreme Court ruling allows nonprofit political groups to enter the world of ad-buying, adding to the universe of what many call Dark Money.

"We really don't much about the dark money category," says Russ Choma at the Center for Responsive Politics, "because it's not disclosed. But we get the sense, based on how many ads we're seeing on television, and also what limited disclosure there has been, that there is quite a bit of money.

Money that targets the news media to frame the narrative. It also targets politicians.

"Money can act as a forecast of what will be done if you oppose or support legislation," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "Think of it as a large sign that someone is waving, saying 'I can put this message up in your congressional campaign, or your senatorial campaign, if you don't vote the right way.'"

Even a think tank has joined in.

The Heritage Foundation on the right is putting in $100,000 in online advertising to stop the bill.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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