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Silicon Valley stymied on immigrant worker plan

Google, Intel, HP and other tech firms backed a pair of proposals this year to increase H-1B visas. They're now bogged down in the political mess known as "comprehensive" immigration reform.

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.
Declan McCullagh
5 min read
Senators, including Republican Marco Rubio at right, announce broad immigration reform principles in January. They don't include what Silicon Valley has proposed.
A group of U.S. senators, including Republican Marco Rubio at right, announced broad immigration reform principles in January. They don't include what Silicon Valley has proposed. U.S. Senate

Silicon Valley firms aren't going to get the immigration changes they want, at least not right away.

Straightforward fixes to a legal framework that just about everyone agrees is broken -- the fixes would 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. It's a bipartisan idea backed by Microsoft, Facebook, Google, the Consumer Electronics Association (which organizes CES), TechAmerica, TechNet, and the wireless providers' CTIA trade association.

Then the usual Washington stasis set in. The Economic Policy Institute, a liberal advocacy group, lashed out at one of the bills, the so-called I-Squared Act, in a paper last week alleging the measure 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 yesterday that 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. And Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) yesterday rejected the idea of a narrow immigration bill that would aid tech firms, saying that Hispanics would be furious if there's not broader reform.

That would be why the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic advocacy group, has been warning that only "comprehensive" legislation that takes their concerns into account will be palatable to their constituency. Last fall's elections, in which Latinos overwhelmingly embraced the president's re-election bid, spurred both major parties toward some kind of broad legal changes.

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 in this area, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, was proposed in 1982 but wasn't signed by President Reagan until November 1986. Another major immigration reform bid, in 2007, concluded without a bill even being enacted.

These complications left Dean Garfield, president of the Information Technology Industry Council, somewhat on the defensive during yesterday's hearing before the House Judiciary committee. "We can protect American workers by ensuring effective enforcement of longstanding H-1B policies and laws to prevent the displacement of U.S. workers and protect their wages," said Garfield, whose members include eBay, Apple, HP, Oracle, and Microsoft.

Further complicating matters has been uncertainty about what will emerge in a proposal being drafted by eight senators, including Schumer, a Democrat, and Republicans John McCain and Marco Rubio. Their draft principles include a "path to citizenship" for illegal immigrants, reducing "backlogs" of employment-based visas, and a "green card to immigrants who have received a PhD or Master's degree in science, technology, engineering, or math from an American university."

Of green cards and H-1B visas
Note what those principles don't include: a commitment to expanding employer-based visas, including H-1B visas.

Silicon Valley employers don't, officially at least, have significant objections to expanding the availability of green cards, which offer permanent resident status and a relatively smooth path to U.S. citizenship. One of the two bills they're backing, the Immigration Innovation Act or I-Squared Act (PDF), eliminates per-country limits on green cards in addition to increasing H-1B visa quantities.

Green cards also grant immigrants the valuable ability to switch jobs easily. To Morrison, a former politician who now represents IEEE, that makes them far preferable to H-1B visas. "There are no problems for which green cards are not a better solution than temporary visas," he said, adding that Congress should "create more green cards for skilled workers."

The ITIC's Garfield argues that H-1B visas can be fixed. "Some employers may not be as quick to sponsor foreign professionals for green cards," he said. Plus, he points out, part of the I-Squared Act makes it easier for H-1B visas to switch jobs.

All of this will be rendered irrelevant if a broader immigration deal falters. President Obama is preparing his own legislation that has irked Republicans -- Sen. Rubio said it would be "dead on arrival" in Congress -- according to a report last month in USA Today. Other potential flash points include a controversy over how to treat same-sex partners and a plan by the administration, disclosed yesterday by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the same Virginia Republican who will be influential in any changes to immigration law, to release thousands of criminals as part of sequestration. (Goodlatte alleges that immigration authorities are releasing "aliens convicted of fraud, theft, or drunk driving offenses.")

Obama's first term did little to endear him to tech companies on immigration. Obtaining visas has become problematic enough that a slew of tech companies, including Microsoft, eBay, Hewlett-Packard, Intuit, Oracle, Intel, and traditional manufacturers, sent a letter to the president last year warning it has "become increasingly difficult for companies to procure visas to transfer their existing employees to the United States to continue work on products, services, and projects." It had no visible effect.

This year, Silicon Valley has rolled out a petition site, MarchForInnovation.com, that's borrowing lessons from the coalition that defeated the Stop Online Piracy Act. Supporters of the virtual "march" include AOL co-founder Steve Case, angel investor Ron Conway, and famed venture capitalist John Doerr. Their plan: to pick a day this spring to flood Congress with public support for pro-legal immigration legislation.

They're also reminding Washington officialdom that immigrants founded Yahoo, eBay, and Google, with the not-so-subtle message that the next generation of tech companies could be located somewhere a continent or two away from the San Francisco peninsula.

Laszlo Bock, Google's senior vice president for people operations, wrote in January that: "The severe backlog of green card applications has forced many foreign-born, U.S. educated entrepreneurs to look elsewhere to start their businesses. Other countries, like Chile and Canada, have responded with immigration policies and programs that welcome these innovators who have been turned away from the U.S."