Struggling with politics, Silicon Valley ramps up fight for more tech visas

 

After largely being left out of President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration reform, Silicon Valley is gearing up for what it expects will be a continued long and bitter process of pushing industry-friendly immigration reform through Congress.

Obama’s Nov. 20 announcement of his plans to move without Congress on immigration reform focused on sparing five million people living illegally in the United States from deportation, but it did little to appease the tech industry’s push for legislation that would make it easier to keep top talent in the country. The president decided to act unilaterally after Congress failed to pass sweeping immigration reform despite years of heavy lobbying from Silicon Valley.

The tech industry has specifically pushed for the increase of visas for highly trained technical workers, called H1-B visas, as well as other reforms that are aimed at making it easier for companies to hire foreign engineers and for foreign entrepreneurs to be based here.

“We’ve been lobbying for this for over 10 years, and it’s not happened, so there is a lot of frustration,” said Emily Lam, the vice president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a public policy trade organization that counts many of tech’s biggest companies among its members. “The tide is turning where this isn’t going to be the place where people want to be because it’s so difficult to get a visa, and we want to have the best and brightest here.”

Silicon Valley has become a must-stop for political fundraising tours, with Obama being a frequent visitor for fundraisers and Rand Paul fueling 2016 presidential speculation after announcing he was opening a Bay Area office. But the local high-tech sector has largely stumbled in its recent overtures to go from fundraising cash cow to policy influencer.

Immigration reform is only the latest tech-lobbied legislation to fail to get passed this year, joining patent reform legislation and National Security Agency mass surveillance reform. Silicon Valley-backed Congressional candidate Ro Khanna, who was bankrolled by some of tech’s biggest names, lost in his bid to unseat fellow Democrat Mike Honda in California’s 17th district in one of the most expensive House races in the country.

H1-B Visa Applications by City
Rank Work City Applications Population
1 New York, NY 27,514 8,405,837
2 Houston, TX 12,898 2,195,914
3 San Francisco, CA 8,320 837,442
4 San Jose, CA 7,546 998,537
5 Chicago, IL 7,183 2,718,782
6 Atlanta, GA 7,156 447,841
7 San Diego, CA 5,633 1,355,896
8 Sunnyvale, CA 5,026 147,559
9 Charlotte, NC 4,840 792,862
10 Boston, MA 4,674 645,966
11 Redmond, WA 4,557 54,144
12 Santa Clara, CA 4,503 120,245
13 Dallas, TX 4,222 1,257,676
14 Seattle, WA 4,167 652,405
15 Mountain View, CA 3,970 74,066
24 Cupertino, CA 3,052 60,189
31 Palo Alto, CA 2,293 66,642
38 Fremont, CA 1,800 224,922
43 Milpitas, CA 1,703 69,783

(Data source: MyVisaJobs.com)

 
“Silicon Valley has been muddling through the politics game, and it hasn’t really known what to do,” said Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance who has written extensively on the tech industry’s influence on immigration reform. “This is fairly new territory, and Silicon Valley has been learning the ropes as they’ve gone on, but it’s such a slow process that they don’t have the patience for it.”

Compounding the inability to pass legislation has been the slow-moving nature of politics in Washington, the antithesis of the efficient and agile Silicon Valley.

“The time lag for legislation in D.C. is really different than what we have here, and it’s been tough for people to get used to that,” Lam said. “We’re used to doing things efficiently, having a quick turnaround. Politics and tech, as we’ve seen, are really different in that regard.”

The tech industry largely concedes Obama would have been on shaky legal ground to move without Congress on the immigration reforms it has sought. In his speech on his executive actions, Obama spoke of his plans to “make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy.”

The executive actions won’t raise the H1-B cap from its current total of 65,000 annually, as Silicon Valley has fervently pushed for; but Obama’s plan does have components that will make it easier for foreign tech workers and entrepreneurs to work in the United States, though many of the details have yet to be released.

Obama plans to extend the Optional Practice Training program, which allows foreign STEM college graduates to stay in the United States for 29 months after graduating — though it’s still unclear for how much longer. Obama has also proposed a founder’s visa that would allow entrepreneurs to stay in the country if they have raised funds, but the catch remains that it is extremely difficult to raise capital for a venture without a visa already in place.

Such proposals have the potential to help local tech entrepreneurs like Menlo Park-based Mike Galarza, the founder and CEO of the accounting services startup Entryless. Galarza moved to the United States from Mexico in 2009 after graduating college, and he has had to go back every year to reapply for a visa.

“Every time, I have to get ready for the worst-case scenario, that I’ll be denied a visa to come back,” Galarza said.

Galarza was named one of the “13 Badass Immigrants in Technology” by Business Insider, along with the likes of Google’s Sergey Brin and Tesla’s Elon Musk. He said 80 percent of Entryless’ customers are from outside the United States, but that he is committed to navigating the difficult path toward permanent U.S. residency because he believes in the American economy and its innovation-friendly ecosystem.

“Tech workers are motivated to use their skills, but these skills mostly can’t be used in these other countries,” Galarza said. “I never wanted to go back, because the skills that I’ve picked up here can’t be applied back in Mexico like they are being applied here. It would have been impossible to start Entryless in Mexico.”

Brian Goldsmith, a tech executive who previously worked as a political news producer for CBS, pointed to lessons that Silicon Valley can learn from the music and entertainment industry when it comes to having limited political influence despite being major political donors.

“When Republican candidates come calling on Silicon Valley, and asking for support, the tech industry needs to make immigration reform one of its threshold issues,” Goldsmith said. “In Hollywood, some people look at candidates and say, ‘These people are good for America even though they aren’t good for my own interests.’ Of course you want to care about the country first, but it’s also important to take a stand on an issue that’s good for America and good for this industry.”

The music and entertainment industry has long been a major political fundraising destination, but the industry has largely been unable to pass policy it has pushed, such as intellectual property laws. Goldsmith referenced 2012’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which was halted in Congress after Silicon Valley’s successful lobbying efforts to stop the legislation that it viewed to be Internet censorship.

In January 2012, Google, Wikipedia and an estimated 7,000 other websites coordinated a service blackout in a public protest of the bill, and active opposition from the likes of Facebook, LinkedIn, eBay and Mozilla pushed Congress to indefinitely shelve the bill.

And while Silicon Valley has been learning that it is harder and takes longer to pass legislation than it does to stop legislation, Goldsmith said the SOPA bill illustrates the tech industry’s potential political influence.

“SOPA was a big priority for the entertainment industry, and Facebook, Google and other major tech companies really dropped the hammer,” Goldsmith said. “The entertainment industry has been active politically for a longer time, but they got their metaphorical head handed to them. It was a signal that if Silicon Valley cares, it has a lot of power in getting things done.”

(Homepage photo courtesy of Ed Uthman on Flickr via Creative Commons.)