Zuckerberg's FWD.us to Calif. leaders: Fix 'broken' immigration system now

The political action group, which has a special interest in obtaining visas for high-skilled workers, hopes to force a vote on immigration reform this year.

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FWD.us supporters include the who's whos of Silicon Valley. Screenshot/Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

The political action group co-founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is lobbying harder to get immigration reform passed in 2014, and it's doing so by calling on the state that would likely benefit the most from changes to immigration policies.

Friday, the alliance known as FWD.us kicked off a campaign to encourage every member of California's congressional delegation to demand votes on immigration reform this year. The campaign will include ramping up advocacy efforts and hosting events for leaders of various communities in the state.

Launched by Zuckerberg in April of 2013, FWD.us is a political action group whose supporters include Silicon Valley heavy-hitters such as Microsoft's Bill Gates, Kleiner Perkins' John Doerr, Yahoo's Marissa Mayer, Napster co-founder Sean Parker, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and investor Ron Conway.

The new California push is part of the FWD.us agenda to get more visas for high-skilled workers, which Zuckerberg and friends believe is essential to narrowing a skills gap that is adversely affecting the US economy. There's currently a very limited supply of H-1B visas, or visas available to companies temporarily employing foreign workers for high-skilled jobs.

Immigration legislation, penned by Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer and seven other senators, passed in the Senate last June. The bill, which would immediately raise the H-1B visa threshold to 110,000 in one year and include a formula for even more visas, has been stymied in the House of Representatives.

"The House Republicans are failing to lead and act on immigration reform," FWD.us Executive Director Todd Schulte said on a conference call Friday afternoon. Their actions are holding California back in its ability to innovate, he said.

Schulte roped in Congressman Scott Peters, who represents the San Diego area, to support the cause. "I've heard from all my technology companies that they're still having a hard time finding enough people to do the high-technology jobs they have," Schulte said.

Without immigration reform, he said, California faces the risk of losing the next Qualcomm or Google to another country.

"As the fifth-largest economy in the world, arguably no other state in the country has as much to gain as California from fixing the country's fundamentally broken immigration system," the FWD.us coalition said in a press release.

FWD.us is interested in comprehensive reform for all levels of workers, though it has specifically lobbied in the past to raise the cap on the number of H-1B visas granted each year. The current system allows for 65,000 H-1B visas to be granted each fiscal year with an additional 20,000 visas available for people who have obtained a master's degree or higher.

The H-1B visa issue is one of especial significance to tech executives who believe their US businesses could help improve the economy if given the freedom to employ more skilled foreign workers.

Technology entrepreneur and immigrant Alex Torrenegra, CEO of Bunny, testified to his company's challenges during Friday's FWD.us conference call. Torrenegra's company maintains a database of professional voice actors. "We have enabled thousands of Americans to work from home delivering professional voice recordings to clients," he said.

He recounted his story of hiring a Colombian-based entrepreneur with the intent of moving him to San Francisco and building a team in the city. The man was denied a visa, however, and forced to stay in Bogota. "As a consequence of that, he ended up building his team in Bogota, and that's 10 people now that were hired overseas instead of in the US."

The H-1B visa issue is a complex one, and opponents to raising the cap are fearful of abuse that would lead to American workers being replaced by cheaper talent from overseas. As it stands, the largest holders of H-1B visas are offshore outsourcing firms, according to a report from Computerworld.

The Senate's legislation also covers far more than visas for high-skilled workers, and House Republicans are, in part, sitting on the bill because they don't want to allow for a special path to citizenship for millions of illegal residents.

Meanwhile, California's economy hangs in the balance, say supporters of reform.

"We're reminded that our dysfunctional system tells many talented immigrants that we don't welcome their contributions, and that they might as well go start their companies and create jobs elsewhere," FWD.us President Joe Green said on April 1, the day the US began accepting application for the next fiscal year. Applications exceeded available visas by the end of the week.

 

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