Silicon Valley execs press D.C. on immigration law fixes

Tech firms present a rare unified front in asking President Obama and Congress "to enact immigration reform this year." But the political obstacles they face in Washington are considerable.

Declan McCullagh
Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
3 min read
President Obama could give high-tech immigration reform a boost by calling on Congress to enact a fix by the end of 2013. So far, at least, he hasn't.
President Obama could give high-tech immigration reform a boost by calling on Congress to enact a fix by the end of 2013. So far, at least, he hasn't. White House

Silicon Valley firms are presenting a rare united front in an effort to end a political logjam that has blocked high-tech immigration reform.

In an unusual show of support that underscores how important the topic has become, executives from Facebook, Google, eBay and other major tech companies sent a letter today to President Obama and congressional leaders asking them to fix immigration law by the end of 2013. The current system is broken, they say, blaming visa shortages, long waits for green cards, and difficulties bringing spouses and children to the United States.

"Because our current immigration system is outdated and inefficient, many high- skilled immigrants who want to stay in America are forced to leave because they are unable to obtain permanent visas," says the letter, which notes that immigrants founded eBay, Google, PayPal and Yahoo. "Some do not bother to come in the first place."

The letter was also signed by the CEOs or other top executives from 100 companies including AT&T, Cisco, Eventbrite, Fry's Electronics, HP, Intel, Intellectual Ventures, Microsoft, Oracle, Qualcomm, TechNet, Yahoo, and Zynga.

They're dismayed that straightforward fixes to a legal framework that just about everyone agrees is broken -- the idea is to let foreign engineers and scientists remain in the United States post-graduation -- have run aground on the usual shoals of special interest politicking and partisan bickering.

Technology companies were hoping for prompt action on a pair of bills introduced this year that would ease a shortage of skilled workers, in part by expanding the H-1B visa program and amending the rules for green cards. In January, the White House endorsed "startup visas" and allowing U.S.-educated foreign graduate students to stay, but as part of an 28-point plan that envisioned a more complicated complete overhaul of the system.

Then the usual Washington stasis set in. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) last week rejected the idea of a standalone immigration bill that would aid tech firms, saying that Hispanics would be furious if there's not broader reform.

The Economic Policy Institute, a liberal advocacy group, lashed out at one of the bills, the so-called I-Squared Act, in a paper alleging it would "add more than two million new high-tech workers to an already unhealthy labor market." Bruce Morrison, a lobbyist for IEEE-USA, which counts some 200,000 U.S. tech workers as members, told Congress during a hearing last week it's time to end "the endless cycle of problems created by the H-1B program," which has an "indentured character" that unreasonably ties foreign employees to their employers.

Schumer, and special interest groups like the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic advocacy organization, have said that only "comprehensive" immigration reform will be acceptable. That's effectively intended to block any fixes to legal immigration that Silicon Valley proposes -- unless the technology companies agree to publicly embrace broader immigration reform that deals with the far thornier problem of illegal immigration.

But so-called comprehensive immigration reform will be a far more complex, slow-moving, and -- depending on the details -- controversial act of legislating than a targeted lure-more-startup-founders measure. The last major law, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, was proposed in 1982 but wasn't signed by President Reagan until November 1986. Another major immigration reform effort, in 2007, concluded without a bill being enacted. And without a means to punish politicians who act against the interests of Silicon Valley firms, there's no obvious indication this political logjam will be broken any more quickly.

Obama disappointed many Silicon Valley execs, including those who had helped to bankroll his reelection bid, by opposing a bill last November that would have made 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. Congress, too, hasn't been swift to act: a bill to create "entrepreneur visas" died last year without a single hearing in the Democrat-controlled Senate or Republican-controlled House of Representatives.