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Action On Immigration Meets Silence, Skepticism In Silicon Valley

Tech companies lobbies all the time — for tax reform, patent reform. But usually, it's in the form of big checks and quiet back room meetings.

Immigration was different — the issue where business leaders decided to ally with Latino community groups and labor unions. And now that President Obama has issued an executive action, the tech sector is sorting out its next steps.

Love Song Goes Quiet

For a while, it seemed, Silicon Valley and Washington DC were singing each other a love song.

In his 2012 State of the Union Address, President Obama said America needs foreign technology workers to stay here and build multi-billion-dollar businesses. He cited an iconic leader: "[We] should support everyone who's willing to work, and every risk-taker and entrepreneur who aspires to become the next Steve Jobs."

Meanwhile, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg started giving his own campaign speeches, not just for visas to hire more foreign software engineers, but also for tomato pickers and dishwashers. He bridged the deep divide between blue- and white-collar lobbies.

He even recruited CEO friends from LinkedIn and DropBox to form the lobbying start-up Fwd.us and said about the new undertaking: "I was really heartened to see just how easy it was to get so many of the leaders [of] a lot of the great companies out here to sign on to support not just the issues that would benefit their companies, but full comprehensive immigration reform."

But after the President's latest speech on immigration, it sounds like there's less love in the air.

Zuckerberg did not applaud the move to grant temporary visas to 4 or 5 million immigrants. In his own Facebook page, he announced the speech, but then stayed silent about its contents. The interim chief of Fwd.us, Todd Schulte, says the action was a step in the right direction but "we all agree we have to keep our eye on the ball. Legislation is the ultimate prize."

The company Facebook issued a cautious statement: "We look forward to hearing more specifics about the President's plan and how it will impact the skills gap that threatens the competitiveness of the tech sector." Similarly, Yahoo says it's reviewing the details. Meanwhile companies that are typically outspoken on immigration policy, including Google and Microsoft, did not comment.

Nominal Gains

Emily Lam, an advocate with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, has been working on immigration reform for years.

While immigration activists around the country celebrated Obama's move, Lam says, Silicon Valley did not.

"Of course we're still disappointed that he can't raise the caps, and we need a legislative fix," she says, "I hope this doesn't make it impossible to get this done. It was already very difficult to begin with."

Obama could not use his executive power to raise the number of H1B visas – which is the single biggest demand among tech companies.

In a memo issued alongside the executive action, Homeland Security outlines measures to make it easier for H1B workers to go home and switch jobs, so that they're not tied to a low-level position or bad company while waiting for a greencard. Their spouses will be able to work too. And foreign students will get more time to stay in the country and look for jobs after they graduate.

Start-Up Visa Inches Forward

The executive action also creates a new kind of visa pathway for foreign entrepreneurs. Homeland Security agents will begin to look at start-up founders who are raising investment capital and creating jobs, to consider, on a case-by-case basis, if they can stay.

The move is a nod to a popular demand in Silicon Valley, to allow entrepreneurs – not just workers, millionaire investors and students – to get work authorization.

Pakistani Faizan Buzdar campaigned for the so-called Start-up Visa. He says he raised $1.5 million for his San Francisco-based tech company Convo, and that without permanent status, it's hard to raise big money.

"If your immigration status is somewhat unclear, that's a significant risk," he says. "And it's a significant risk for investors."

Buzdar says the president's action is a good step, but he doubts it'll lead to many new visas actually being granted. "Today I don't have reason to sort of jump in joy and say 'yes, the problem has been completely solved.'"

Finding Political Power

The lobbying group Venture Politics is searching for a strategy. Founder Craig Montuori says, "A lot have just lost faith in the political system entirely."

According to him and others in the tech sector, this last big move by Obama was a response to mounting political pressure from millions who wanted relief — not to the well-reasoned economic arguments of tech titans.

"To be fair, we're also a small community. So not a lot of people really have political reason to listen to us, even though our VIPs, our leaders are major donors," Montuori says.

He isn't sure if the president's executive action will strengthen the coalition for a comprehensive bill — or weaken the ties between groups as they return to Congress for more action.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.