Immigration Reform 2013: Silicon Valley Taking the Lead

Since Mitt Romney’s defeat in the presidential election last November, immigration reform has come to the relative forefront of American politics. The overwhelming majority of Latinos who voted for Barack Obama has left little doubt among many Republicans that some sort of reform needs to be enacted. The GOP has been looking for ways to reach out to Latinos in an effort to reverse a growing trend that sees Republicans having almost no chance to win elections without this important voting bloc in the future.

Democrats have always been a champion of minorities and the middle class where a large part of Latinos reside. They finally see a chance to address a failing immigration system and follow through on campaign promises made by President Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Now that time has ripened in favor of immigration reform, an unlikely player has emerged. Enter the CEOs of some the biggest tech companies in Silicon Valley. The leaders of Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, Microsoft, Intel, and others have joined together to form a new bipartisan coalition to overhaul the current immigration system.

Silicon Valley’s involvement spurs from a lack of a highly educated and skilled labor pool from which to fill a burgeoning technology sector. Much of the debate revolves around the small number of H1-B visas, the “brain drain” that occurs once foreign students graduate from American universities and are forced to go back home, and a system that currently places too high of barriers on entrepreneurial immigrants who wish to create startups here.

An H1-B visa is a non-immigrant temporary foreign worker program that was created to attract the best talent in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Once these visas are acquired, workers are able to apply for permanent residency. As the law currently stands, the U.S. government has capped these visas at 85,000 per year. The problem is that American companies applied for 124,000 of those visas in the first week alone.

Because these visas are so difficult to come by, Silicon Valley and its allies contend that we are essentially educating the best and brightest foreign students only to have them take their skills to compete against us abroad. The entrepreneurial spirit that embodies what Silicon Valley is has lost its mojo. In 2007, immigrants made up 52% of startup founders while that number is just 44% today. Additionally, for immigrants to create their own startup today, it takes over a half million dollars and a sponsor.

Mark Zuckerberg, who is spearheading the operation, announced two weeks ago in an op-ed in the Washington Post the formation of his new lobbying group, FWD.us. Pronounced Forward US, the group has a two-pronged approach to solve their labor problems. It initially intends to lobby for immigration reform as a solution for their lack of skilled labor. In the future, it plans to lobby for greater investments in education, specifically science and technology in order to fill their demand for high skilled labor.

Like so many things in life, money is a key driver in decision-making. While politicians may be approaching immigration reform from a demographic and voting bloc perspective, Zuckerberg and his partners are looking at reform as a means to boost business and the overall economy. When visas are distributed today, only 7% are given based on the needs of the economy.

As debate continues on the Senate floor, it remains to see how effective FWD.us will be. What is certain is that Silicon Valley isn’t going anywhere. The American economy is based on innovation and ideas, and that’s exactly what Silicon Valley hopes to deliver.

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Nick Davis

A recent graduate of Iowa State University working on Capitol Hill.

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