The Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn executives who banded together behind Mark Zuckerberg’s immigration reform lobby have yet to see a payoff on the money and political capital they’ve spent to influence the debate in Washington. If they needed another reminder of that, they got it this week, when president Obama took executive action on the issue.
For the Silicon Valley lobby, called FWD.us, the White House plan to protect millions of undocumented immigrants is beside the point. What tech companies mainly want is to bring in more highly skilled workers from around the world. While critics say this is more about seeking to limit wages for coders than wanting unfettered access to the world’s supply of top programmers, economics tend to see increases in highly-skilled immigrants as a net positive, as they lower the cost of expensive services for the general population and are more likely to start their own businesses.
The tech industry’s best hope of loosening visa restrictions was in the immigration reform bill that FWD.us lobbied for, which would have increased high-skill visas (and border security) while granting relief to unauthorized immigrants. It lobbied so hard for it, though, that the group’s apparent willingness to say anything to generate support for immigration reform—with conservative and liberal arms each pandering to different constituencies and Congressional candidates—made the organization controversial. And while the legislation passed in the Senate, it was killed by House Republicans.
Faced with inaction, Obama decided to use his statutory powers to give at least some of the unauthorized population legal residency and catalyze action in the new Congress—a move FWD.us endorsed as a springboard for further compromise.
But reflecting the group’s mixed messages, the two candidates it backed in 2014 with more than $800,000 in spending—New Hampshire Democratic senator Jeanne Shaheen and North Carolina Republican representative Renee Ellmers—had differing reactions. Shaheen’s statement focused on enacting the bipartisan senate bill she voted for, calling for the House to take up the legislation. Ellmer said that Obama’s “decision to ‘go-at-it-alone’ shows blatant disregard for the will of the American people,” and a spokesperson said that while Ellmer still supports”earned legal work status” for unauthorized immigrants, she won’t comment on the compromise bill.
Last night’s announcement did include one gift to the tech companies: There are nebulous plans to expand the “Other Practical Training” visa, which allows US-educated foreigners to extend their stays in the US by 29 months. This should be a small boon to tech companies, but because it is essentially a stop-gap measure, it won’t give workers or companies real certainty—and problems with its management have raised worries about exploitation of foreign workers.
FWD.us says it will continue pushing for a comprehensive legislative solution, but few analysts expect an already heavy lift to get any easier.