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Schwartz, Mulcahy: When will Uncle Sam get a clue on H-1Bs?

The two CEOs use the occasion of a joint appearance to call for letting more non-U.S.-born-computer engineers into the country.

PALO ALTO, Calif.--Anne Mulcahy and Jonathan Schwartz became the latest technology CEOs to call on the government to let more foreign-born computer engineers into the United States.

Anne Mulcahy and Jon Schwartz Charles Cooper/CNET

"You have to raise the quotas," said Mulcahy, CEO at Xerox. Schwartz, who runs Sun Microsystems, struck the same theme.

The message went down well with an audience of Silicon Valley elites gathering at Stanford Friday for a daylong conference on political economy. Then again, they were facing a free-trade crowd of true believers, including headliners like eBay's Meg Whitman and former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, as well as guys representing big investment houses, venture capitalists, and money managers.

I doubt their pitch would go down as well in places like Ohio or Michigan. So far, however, the H-1B debate hasn't turned into a divisive presidential campaign issue. Neither the Clinton nor Obama camps have taken up the question. Ditto for John McCain. High-tech companies like Xerox and Sun want Congress to raise the cap on employee-sponsored green cards and offer quota exemptions to foreigners with serious math or technology chops. SIA President George Scalise, who is sitting 10 feet away from me, wants to give green cards to talented foreign students.

"It gets worse each year because our needs are greater," Mulcahy added. But if I'm reading her correctly, Xerox's boss doesn't have any confidence that legislators are going to move quickly.

"We have just been stuck on inaction in this country. It's not pros or cons. It's inaction, it's the political polarization in this country that has made for extraordinary problems.

"Having access to international talent is a big part of what's fueled our technology industry," she said. "The statistics about new companies that have started up the last ten years and the number of founders who came from outside this country...I mean, this is just dumb."

"So you put a limit here, we'll go hire there," Schwartz added. "We're not dumb."

Former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz Charles Cooper/CNET

So why can't tech's power elite get Washington to blow in its direction?

"Damned if I knew," he said. "We've all tried. We've all done the perpetual flights to Washington to talk with them...there's an element of, "Does that drive my election?" It'll help this room. This room doesn't represent a lot of voters. It represents a lot of money."

That got a good laugh out of the swells, but I think Mulcahy nailed it with her answer.

"There's a perception that global trade and big business is leading to losses in the economy and (politicians) don't want to get on the wrong side of that argument."

That's the way things work in Washington but Schultz said the tenor of the battle over H-1Bs may take on a different look after the November election.

"A year or so ago, an effort to get comprehensive reform in immigration was tried with the (backing) of the President and Senators McCain and Kennedy. In the end, it didn't fly. But that was the right track. All the people who were running against that idea (in the primaries)--have since lost. So that's progress and let's hope that it continues."