Obama’s Immigration Plan Doesn’t Grant Tech World’s Wishes

image of Silicon Valley arrow signSilicon Valley leaders have lobbied for years and spent millions of dollars trying to increase the number of high-skilled foreigners who can work in the U.S., but President Obama didn’t grant their top wish in the sweeping executive actions on immigration he announced Thursday.

Though he offered detailed plans that could prevent the deportation of up to 5 million immigrants, Obama merely mentioned he would “make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders have proposed.”

That was not the kind of guarantee the tech sector was seeking.

“There were no specifics,” said Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a trade association that represents 390 of Silicon Valley’s top companies. “I don’t know whether to applaud or boo. Whenever a politician doesn’t offer any specifics I get worried.”

Tech companies want the federal government to expand the H-1B visa program, which each year allows 65,000 highly skilled foreigners to take temporary work in the U.S., plus an additional 20,000 immigrants who are graduates of U.S. colleges.

Industry leaders say there is a shortage of U.S. tech talent, and the program helps them attract top-tier workers they desperately need. Critics, however, say employers prefer foreign workers because they can hire and retain them at a lower cost.

The 2013 immigration overhaul that passed the Democrat-dominated Senate before being blocked by the GOP-led House would have increased visas for skilled workers to at least 115,000, and possibly as many as 300,000. The demand is so great that applications for the available H-1B visas this year hit the limit in five days.

Despite having bipartisan support in Congress on the issue, Obama didn’t increase the visa pool Thursday. Instead, the president focused much of his attention on immigrants who are already in this country, like parents whose children are already U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.

Considering Obama is pushing his immigration policies with a seldom-used executive action, expanding the H-1B visa program “would have been a lot to ask the president to do on his own,” said Pratheepan Gulasekaram, a professor of law at the Santa Clara University School of Law. “A lot of what he’s doing is walking a tightrope that’s right on the edge of his power.”

Several tech advocates say they understand why Obama didn’t heed their calls for additional H-1B visas.

“We’re not disappointed. We know the options for administrative reforms for highly skilled (immigrants) are limited,” said Scott Corley, who has advocated in Washington, D.C., on immigration issues for a number of Silicon Valley firms.

Their next step will be to push for reform through Congress, where, Corley said, “there is bipartisan support in both chambers and across the spectrum. There has been for years. The question is: Will they act on it?”

But the advocates must move quickly, Guardino said. Within 10 months, the 2016 election campaigns will kick into higher gear and many lawmakers will become loath to tackle anything with a whiff of controversy.

Obama’s announcement was disappointing to some in the tech community, given that it has ramped up its political presence in recent years, with much of the focus on overhauling the U.S. immigration system.

Last year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg jumped into politics by creating and providing much of the funding for FWD.us, a bipartisan group focused on comprehensive immigration reform. It started in April 2013 with $50 million in funding and a roster of supporters than included Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

On Thursday, FWD.us acting President Todd Schulte said he was encouraged by Obama’s pledge to “help keep the best and the brightest who come from around the world to study at our universities.” However, he added, “these actions are no substitute for legislation.”

Silicon Valley has become a regular fundraising stop for Obama since his first campaign for president. Obama has received $16.5 million in campaign contributions from tech companies, their employees and political action committees since 2004, according to Maplight, a nonpartisan organization that analyzes the intersection of money and politics.

It’s doubtful that money spigot will be turned off, given that much of the valley leans Democratic, said Steve Tadelis, a professor of business and public policy at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Tadelis said it will also be difficult to rally public support around this aspect of the immigration issue “because it’s not something most Americans care about.”

Economists and analysts disagree on how the visa program affects the U.S. economy.

A June UC Davis study found that capping the number of visas leads to a loss of jobs by U.S.-born workers. UC Davis economics Professor Giovanni Peri found that when the number of visas was capped in 2007 and 2008, it affected job growth in various U.S. regions. The tech-rich Bay Area was one of the hardest-hit larger metro areas, according to the study. H-1B visa denials during that period caused San Francisco to miss out on creating as many as 4,219 tech jobs for American-born workers.

But critics say the intent of the H-1B visa program has been twisted.

More than half of the visas granted last year went to offshore outsourcing firms, according to research by Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

And the program doesn’t bring the best and the brightest from around the world, said Norman Matloff, a UC Davis professor of computer science and a longtime critic of the tech industry’s cries about a labor shortage.

“Compared to Americans of the same education and age, the former foreign students turn out to be weaker than, or at most comparable to, the Americans in terms of salary, patent applications, Ph.D. dissertation awards, and quality of the doctoral program in which they studied,” Matloff wrote last year in a study for the Economic Policy Institute. Several labor union leaders serve on the institute’s board of directors.

©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle

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