Silicon Valley’s long crusade to break open doors to the US for foreigners with key technology skills hinges on a political battle in Washington over broader immigration reform.
For more than a decade, the technology sector has been struggling to get more visas and green cards for immigrants with engineering, math or science skills.
While Silicon Valley has been largely backing reform-minded Democratic candidates, including US President Barack Obama, Republicans have begun paying attention to broader immigration reform, an issue dear to US Latinos.
“The election happened and the Republicans took a shellacking from Hispanics,” said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation think tank in Washington.
“It was a wake-up call,” he said. “A comprehensive approach to immigration reform became viable.”
The new political landscape hobbled efforts to push through stand-alone legislation focused just on high-skilled workers.
Stanford University fellow and Singularity University vice president Vivek Wadhwa champions science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) immigration.
“Who is behind the US tech boom right now? Immigrants,” Wadhwa said. “Just as the US is reinventing itself with a whole range of technologies we are cutting off the circulation in Silicon Valley.”
A Republican-backed US House of Representatives bill to expand visas for foreigners graduating from US universities with advanced degrees in science and technology was killed in the Senate by Democrats in the name of broader immigration reform.
“We need visas and a new-and-improved immigration arrangement for Silicon Valley and the high-tech sector, but the only way we will win reform is to fight for top-to-bottom overhaul of our immigration system,” Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez said in an editorial on technology news Web site TechCrunch.
Gutierrez is chairman of the US Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and was responding to comments by Wadhwa, who testified in Washington this month.
Wadhwa says the two issues are separate.
“Providing citizenship to people who jumped over the border is contentious; it’s toxic,” Wadhwa said. “In the meantime you are holding hostage the legal, skilled immigrants — scientists, engineers, doctors — who the whole world wants.”
A stand-alone reform bill by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch would raise the annual cap on H-1B visas to 115,000 from 65,000 and pump the money into STEM education in the US.
Now, analysts say lawmakers appear to be looking at a comprehensive measure that deals with high-skilled workers and the millions of undocumented aliens.
“Because our immigration system needs fixing top to bottom, fixing it all at once is the right way to approach things,” Gutierrez said.
The strategy could succeed with the help of Silicon Valley firms that believe the only way to get the immigration changes dear to them is to back an overhaul of the system.
The fact that this is not an election year lends hope for support from legislators who might otherwise view immigration reform as politically risky.