Obama opposes Silicon Valley firms on immigration reform

White House announcement before congressional vote on STEM Jobs Act puts president in opposition to many of the Silicon Valley firms and executives who bankrolled his re-election campaign.

An immigration reform plan backed by Silicon Valley firms is one bill President Obama doesn't want to sign.
An immigration reform plan backed by Silicon Valley firms is one bill President Obama doesn't want to sign. White House

President Obama opposes an immigration reform bill backed by companies including Apple, Microsoft, and Adobe that would let U.S.-educated computer programmers and engineers remain in the country, the White House said today.

The surprise announcement comes in advance of a House of Representatives vote scheduled for Friday on the Republican-backed STEM Jobs Act of 2012, which would make up to 55,000 visas available to foreigners who earned a master's or doctoral degree in certain science or technology area from a U.S. university. Those visas would only be available if immigration authorities certify that no American workers are available to fill the post.

The White House's statement this afternoon (PDF) says the "administration opposes House passage of H.R. 6429."

It's a move sure to disappoint the legions of companies and business groups -- the list also includes Cisco, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, Qualcomm, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, IEEE-USA -- that sent a joint letter to House members in September pleading with them to approve the bill.

While the Obama administration's warning didn't include an explicit veto threat, it also didn't take that possibility off the table, and it means the legislation will likely die in the Democrat-controlled Senate even if it clears the House.

Tech companies had hoped that the STEM Jobs Act could emerge as a rare bipartisan point of accord during an otherwise hotly contested election year. AOL co-founder Steve Case, now a venture capitalist, told CNET this month that:

My view is if there is a way to come together around broader immigration reform quickly, that would be great. But if that doesn't happen, then we shouldn't delay the issue because every year -- and again it will happen in May and June next year -- 40,000 to 50,000 people will be graduating with Ph.D.s and masters' degrees, and half or so will end up having to leave. Some of those people will go back to their countries and start companies that could end up being the next Googles or Facebooks.

The White House's announcement said the administration doesn't necessarily oppose the concepts behind the bill, but the STEM Jobs Act is a "narrowly tailored proposal" that does not "meet the president's long-term objectives with respect to comprehensive immigration reform." One reason it's controversial among Democrats is that the bill would eliminate the 55,000 diversity visas available to citizens of countries with low immigration rates to the United States.

This week's vote is all-but-certain to forward the STEM Act to the Senate. House Democrats defeated a prior vote on the bill in September, but that was under rules requiring a two-thirds supermajority. If the vote counts remain approximately the same, under this Friday's simple majority rule, the measure will clear the House.

Silicon Valley firms haven't had much luck persuading Washington officialdom to budge on immigration reform. As CNET reported this month, a related bill, Startup Act 2.0, that would authorize 75,000 "entrepreneur visas" has languished in House and Senate committees for half a year without a single hearing.

Legal immigrants founded or co-founded innumerable technology companies including Google, Yahoo, Intel, eBay, and Sun. A Kauffman Foundation study by Vivek Wadhwa found that 52 percent of Silicon Valley startups were "immigrant-founded."

Last updated at 5:28 p.m. PT

 

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