Immigration reform is the top priority for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and much of Silicon Valley—where start-ups and tech giants alike are hampered by their inability to keep talented foreigners in the United States.
It’s a big time play to more than double the number of H-1B visas, a major economic change that easily gets overshadowed by the political debate about border security, the Hispanic vote, and amnesty for 11 million undocumented workers.
The reforms contained in the bill by the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Eight have led to optimism among the tech industry’s top DC players. The bill—which the Senate will pick-up after recess this week—includes raising the cap on H-1B visas for foreign workers from 85,000 to as much as 205,000, creating an “Invest” visa for foreigners who start new companies, and an exemption on PhDs in mathematics, science, and engineering from the limits on green cards.
Immigration tends to be cast as a social justice issue, but this is really as transformative an economic policy as any of the budget issues that are a source of division between Republicans and Democrats.
Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, stressed in a recent speech that the growth in the U.S. workforce will primarily come from immigrants and their children in the decades ahead.
Modifying visas and green cards for eggheads and entrepreneurs gets little public airtime because it’s void of much controversy. At a House Judiciary Committee hearing in February, Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., called the amnesty issue “toxic” while saying the failure to make immigration easier for entrepreneurs “actually has put Americans out of work.”
This month, Zuckerberg unveiled FWD.us, whose backers include heavy hitters such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and venture capitalist John Doerr.
Last week, a subsidiary of FWD.us called Americans for a Conservative Action started running TV ads to overcome resistance by some congressional Republicans. One add features Florida Sen. Marco Rubio talking about tough border enforcement, while another tries to insulate Sen. Lindsey Graham from criticism in South Carolina.
But after talking on-background with top tech players in DC, here are three things that Silicon Valley is looking for with immigration reform:
Tweak the Restrictions on H-1B Visas: Raising the cap is only one part of the issue, with tech lobbyists supporting the intent of the 844-page bill but having concerns about the nitty-gritty.
For example, the measure tries to protect the jobs of U.S. citizens by having stipulations about when foreigners can be hired. A business cannot hire someone with an H1-B visa either 90 days before or 90 days after letting go an American in a similar job category.
The trouble is that the job categories might be a bit too broad, such that a company in theory that lets go an engineer in its laptop division might not be able to bring on a foreigner in its tablet division. The presumed benefits from increasing the cap could be undermined as a result.
This is a delicate sell.
As one tech industry lobbyist noted, this is in deep in the weeds and opponents to any changes “can just put the bumper sticker out: Americans First.”
A briefing paper issued last week by the progressive Economic Policy Institute noted that under the Gang of Eight H-1B cap increase half of all IT jobs requiring a college degree would go to guest workers.
“What are the consequences of having that much of an occupation taken up by these temporary workers?” said Ross Eisenbrey, EPI’s executive vice president. “The conclusion is it does lead to lower salaries. And when salaries are depressed, it leads to U.S. workers and students being turned off from those fields.”
Comprehensive—Not Piecemeal—Reforms: House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., said last week that he plans to take any overhaul bit by bit.
The GOP lawmaker plans to begin with an immigration bill for immigration workers, followed by a proposal to mandate that employers verify the residency status of potential employees.
Not quite what the tech community has in mind. Zuckerberg’s FWD.us specifically supports “comprehensive” reform.
Why? Because past attempts to rewrite the standards for legal immigration tend to fail. One former Senate aide compared visas for start-up founders to a fullback rushing into the end zone. Because the measure looks so strong, it will get so loaded down with amendments and pet projects that scoring a touchdown becomes impossible.
“Our experience has been that comprehensive has to happen,” said Emily Mendell, spokeswoman for the National Venture Capital Association. “Individual pieces don’t have much of a chance passing on their own.”
Overwhelming Senate Support – For the Gang of Eight bill to become law, it has to clear a Republican-majority House with some members who are highly skeptical about any benefits coming from amnesty. Among their objections is the argument that a pathway to citizenship will ultimately lead to higher costs for government programs such as Social Security.
The Senate can’t just pass the bill. To break down any resistance in the lower chamber, it must clear immigration reform with minimal dissent. This could mean more than 70 “yeas,” particularly if 20 of the 45 Senate Republicans back the measure.
In the most prominent example of bipartisan cooperation this year—the fiscal cliff deal that averted a tax hike on 99 percent of the country—the Senate voted 89-8.