Immigration and tech: What do you think?

U.S. technology companies rely heavily on foreign-born workers to help them innovate and drive the U.S. economy, and they are an active part of the ongoing debate in Washington, D.C., on immigration reform.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

The technology sector has a lot at stake in the ongoing debate on immigration reform.

While much of the debate in the media surrounding immigration has been about legalizing illegal immigrants, for technology companies, the biggest issue is making sure that they have access to enough skilled legal immigrants, especially as the U.S. economy rebounds from a recession. More so than most industries, technology companies rely on foreign-born workers, many educated in U.S. university systems, to fill key roles that enable them to innovate and grow.

As immigration reform legislation winds its way through Congress, large tech companies, such as Microsoft and Intel, say they'd like to see reforms included that would help streamline the process for bringing new workers to the United States, as well as speed up the process to make them permanent residents so they can continue working and innovating in the States.

Compete America, a group that represents private industry and universities that depend on skilled foreign workers, has been advocating for market-driven caps on H-1B visas that would fluctuate with demand. The group is also pushing to speed up the green-card process for workers who want to live in the U.S. permanently. The backlog is so long now, representatives for the group say that many foreign workers are waiting nine years for a green card. This long wait makes it difficult for technology companies to retain the best and brightest minds to work at their companies.

The number of H-1B visas issued each year is capped at 65,000, with another 20,000 visas set aside for foreign-born students who graduate from U.S. schools with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math.

In the late 1990s, before the technology bubble burst, H-1B visas were gone within days after the application period began in April. Since the great recession hit, demand for H-1B visas has tailed off considerably. In 2009, it took until December to hit the cap.

But there are signs that demand is picking up again, as the economy rebounds. And many pro-immigration groups say these skilled workers are needed now, more than ever, to pull the U.S. out of the economic malaise, especially since technology will be a key component to recovery.

President Obama has acknowledged that growth in the tech sector will be a crucial contributor and enabler for growth in the U.S. economy. That's why he has put his support behind the National Broadband Plan, a road map for communications policy over the next decade, drafted by the Federal Communications Commission.

This 10-year plan, which calls for getting broadband Internet service to all Americans, is seen as a major policy step toward creating more jobs and stimulating more investment in the U.S. in the future. Compete America says access to skilled foreign workers will be important to achieve many of the goals laid out in the National Broadband Plan.

"The American economy has always benefited from the contributions of the highly educated, regardless of where they were born," said Frances Cox, a spokeswoman for Compete America. "We're talking about the innovators and job creators our country should be welcoming with open arms--especially during tough economic times."

But some critics argue that letting too many foreign workers into the U.S., both skilled and unskilled, takes away from jobs that could be taken by American workers. With unemployment over 10 percent in some areas of the country, these critics argue that it's difficult to justify making it easier for a noncitizen to work in the U.S.

Compete America and other immigration advocates say this reasoning is flawed. According to a study published in 2008 by the National Foundation of American Policy, companies with H-1B visa holders actually create more jobs for American workers. For every one H-1B worker requested, companies generally hired an additional five American workers, the study suggests. In a survey of technology companies, NFAP found that 65 percent of technology companies responding said they'd move operations abroad, if they could not get enough H-1B visas for their skilled workers.

Foreign workers also help spur innovation. In the last 15 years, immigrants have started 25 percent of U.S. venture-backed public companies, such as Intel, eBay, Yahoo, and Google. Moreover, Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs founded nearly a third of Silicon Valley's technology companies, accounting for $19.5 billion in sales and more than 72,000 jobs.

Meanwhile, comprehensive immigration reform is being debated in Washington, D.C. Compete America supports some aspects of legislation proposed by Sens. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) . But the debate is far from over.

As part of an open dialogue with the Obama administration, CNET has been asked to participate in a panel on Thursday, during which we will be given the opportunity to ask Cecilia Muñoz, director of White House Intergovernmental Affairs, questions on the topic of immigration reform and how it will affect the technology sector.

CNET is looking for some good questions from our readers to ask Muñoz. So if you have some good questions, please send them to me at maggie.reardon@cbs.com or post them in the comments section below this story.

The discussion will be streamed live at 1 p.m. EDT on Thursday on the White House Web site.