By MICHELLE QUINN and ELIZA KRIGMAN | 12/7/12 5:02 AM EST
SAN FRANCISCO — The immigration debate is heating back up in Washington — and in Silicon Valley.
A coalition of technology firms is taking its issue east, meeting in Washington this week with White House officials and key members of Congress to discuss how the debate is expected to unfold.
The tech industry has long wanted more visas for highly skilled workers but has been reluctant to muddy the issue with questions about border security, reuniting families and letting illegal workers stay.
Now that the Latino vote has rocketed comprehensive immigration reform back into the spotlight, the industry will again have to decide whether to align its cause with the bigger immigration movement.
“We understand comprehensive is where the game is,” Peter Muller, Intel’s director of government relations, told POLITICO. “There are pros and cons to that. We know it is difficult to achieve. If it is not successful, there will be a more targeted approach.”
Facing a growing talent shortage, tech wants more green cards for Ph.D.s in technical fields and a better system for bringing foreign nationals here temporarily. But it hasn’t had any luck getting Congress to change laws. The sense of urgency about the issue has increased since 2007, when Congress last took up comprehensive immigration reform.
This week, Compete America, a coalition of tech firms, university associations and others, is holding a retreat in Washington to discuss the immigration debate. The group is meeting with Felicia Escobar, senior policy adviser for immigration at the White House Domestic Policy Council, as well as key members of the Senate: Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
“Our industry faces a talent shortage that is rapidly approaching the dimensions of a crisis,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft’s executive vice president and general counsel. “If we don’t see action over the course of the next year, we’ll see headlines about companies being forced to move jobs to other countries. This isn’t something our industry wants to do. There are not enough people graduating with computer science degrees for the jobs we are creating.”
Fearing another draining legislative battle over the issue as in the past, tech leaders are discussing what role to play in the coming year with comprehensive reform expected to take center stage.
Meanwhile, there are several narrower bills from both parties that address some of the needs of the tech community — including a bill that passed the House last week but was stymied by the White House and has little chance in the Senate.
The tech industry is asking itself how to navigate the tensions between the parties over the issue, what it might want from a bigger immigration bill and a fallback plan if comprehensive reform fails.
Jason Mahler, a vice president at Oracle, said the “comprehensive approach hasn’t borne much fruit. There’s a healthy dose of skepticism about it. … We want this taken care of, whether it is the comprehensive or not.”
Still, tech “knows the winds have changed and the best way to get something now is to play ball with other constituencies that want changes in a comprehensive bill,” said a House Democratic aide.
“The challenge is convincing people there is a wolf at the door,” said Scott Corley, executive director of Compete America. “Now, the cost of moving away from America is packing up computers and getting on a plane.”
“Immigration reform” is shorthand for border security and creating a process that will put people here illegally onto a path to citizenship.
But in Silicon Valley, immigration reform means trying to address the shortage of workers in fields such as science, technology, engineering and math. Among the fixes tech wants are improvements to how employers can bring temporary workers here and how to make available more green cards for people who have been here for years and working on a temporary visa.
But companies aren’t waiting for congressional leaders to come up with ideas. As part of Microsoft’s National Talent Strategy, Congress would create 20,000 visas annually for skills that are in short supply at a cost of $10,000 each and allocate 20,000 new green card slots at $15,000 each for workers with science, technology, engineering and math skills. Money raised would go to an education initiative focused on the skills. Microsoft has 3,400 open engineering jobs, a 34 percent increase over the number that was unfilled a year ago.
Efforts to pass a bill targeting industry’s concerns have run into a web of immigration politics and party jockeying.
A key example is a bill sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) that was approved by the House last week in a 245-139 vote. It would provide 55,000 green cards for highly skilled foreigners in science, technology, engineering and math but would take the new green cards out of the diversity visa program.
The White House issued a statement in advance of the vote declaring that the bill was too narrow and did not “meet the president’s long-term objectives with respect to comprehensive immigration reform.” The bill is not expected to advance in the Senate, where another bill has languished that would drop the per country caps on working visas, something the tech industry wants as well.
Some tech industry groups wrote letters in support of the House bill and issued statements of thanks when the bill passed, but the industry as a whole did not lobby that hard. “I have yet to see an official of Apple, Google, Intel or of any major STEM industry-related organization come to this floor and endorse this bill,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) during the debate last week.
Even the most ardent supporters of comprehensive reform, such as Gutierrez, have recently shown willingness to get behind measures that only address STEM green cards.
He called a meeting with tech leaders in November in which he said he would drop his long-standing opposition to targeted immigration bills. However, he said he didn’t like the most recent bill proposed by House Republicans.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a key figure in the immigration debate in the House, said that while tech firms are most interested in their own needs, they also have a stake in seeing the larger immigration problem resolved.
“This division between family and business is a false one,” Lofgren, who represents Silicon Valley, said in an interview. “I’ve gotten calls for constituent services, from companies in my district, where they have an engineer who is separated from his wife and he is saying, ‘Just forget it, I’ll go back to India.’”
Members of Congress interested in tackling comprehensive reform next year don’t want to acknowledge the possibility of failure. But if it collapses, there is reason to believe that targeted bills, such as a STEM green card measure, could move on their own with the tech industry helping to power them through Congress.
“When it comes to keeping highly skilled innovation economy employees, often educated in our own universities but all too often sent home upon graduation to compete against us, we cannot continue to lose time and talent,” said Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO Carl Guardino. “Our main message to Congress and the administration, therefore, is to pass something meaningful — and soon.”
Michael Beckerman, president and chief executive of The Internet Association, said his organization would visit key congressional districts to discuss with lawmakers how STEM measures would affect the local economy. “Whatever the vehicle to get it done, great. We’re supporting many vehicles and will support any that will get us to our goal.”