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Senate approves immigration bill with increased H-1B visas

Tech companies and members of the Zuckerberg-led political action group rejoice as the U.S. Senate votes to approve a comprehensive immigration bill. But, the measure still has to pass the House.

FWD.us's list of supporters reads like a who's who of the tech industry, with names like Mark Zuckerberg, Marissa Mayer, Bill Gates, and many more. Screenshot by Dara Kerr/CNET

In a rare bipartisan effort, the U.S. Senate approved the immigration bill with a 68-32 vote on Thursday. This means the lobbying efforts put forth by Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and other major tech companies most likely made a difference.

The 1,200-page measure, dubbed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, which ultimately won the Senate's approval, calls for boosting security on the U.S.-Mexico border, helping immigrants that are currently in the U.S. illegally, and increasing H-1B visas to foreign workers.

It's the bit about H-1B visas that the tech companies were most rallying for. The idea is for companies to be able to attract more of the world's brightest minds in engineering and technology and allow these workers to stay in the U.S.

The bill was written by a bipartisan group of senators called the "Gang of Eight," which included Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

In the lead up to Senate debate on the bill, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched a political action group called FWD.us to focus on immigration reform. As a result, a deep roster of tech executives banded to together to push the bipartisan policy agenda and change how the U.S. approaches immigration.

The group vowed to work with members of Congress from both parties, the administration, and state and local officials. It has used both online and offline advocacy tools to build support for policy changes. FWD.us' list of heavy hitters includes Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, and many more.

Several of these tech leaders applauded the Senate's vote in passing the immigration act on Thursday.

"This is a big step forward for jobs, innovation, and the American economy," Facebook's vice president of U.S. policy Joel Kaplan said in a statement e-mailed to CNET. "We've been talking with members for months about what the technology industry needs to remain competitive and this bill shows that they listened and they get it."

CNET also received statements from FWD.us and Microsoft.

"Senators from across the political spectrum showed that they are willing to come together in a productive, bipartisan way in an incredibly tough political climate, amid continuing gridlock -- and we applaud their courage in doing so," FWD.us' founder and president Joe Green said.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said, "Today, the Senate took a significant step toward reforming our nation's outdated immigration policies. If enacted, these changes will strengthen our economic security, foster innovation and enable continued job growth in the U.S. Equally important, the legislation makes critical investments in our workforce by strengthening STEM education in the United States, including instruction focused on computer science."

The fact that the immigration bill passed the Senate is monumental; however, it now has to pass the House. And, this could prove difficult. According to the Washington Post, many members of the Republican-led House have said they oppose the Senate bill because it is too lax on border security and too generous to illegal immigrants.

Despite the republican opposition, FWD.us has pledged to continue its lobbying presence with the House, as it did with the Senate. The PAC will continue to create new ads, set up tech roundtables, and mobilize groups in various target states.

"We recognize that the House will have its own approach to components of reform, and we know that in order for this vitally important process to move forward, the House will work its will as it considers ways to fix our broken, archaic immigration system," FWD.us's Green said. "FWD.us will continue to advocate for comprehensive, bipartisan reform that will attract innovators, build prosperous neighborhoods with strong families and good jobs, and ensure the U.S. continues to lead the world in the growth of the knowledge economy."