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Friday, June 14, 2013

Tech Pushes to Keep Its Spoils in Immigration Bill

Keen to hold on to its winnings in a landmark Senate immigration bill, the technology industry this week put on what one lobbyist called “a full court press” on Capitol Hill, dispatching executives and entrepreneurs to buttonhole lawmakers and rallying people in the industry to dispatch e-mails, telephone calls and Twitter messages to Congress.

Human resource department heads from eight of the country’s largest technology companies popped into the offices of more than a dozen members of Congress. A new group called Engine Advocacy, which has focused on a so-called start-up visa for foreign entrepreneurs, sent its representatives to the Hill and set up a new online platform, called www.keepushere.org, to encourage techies to send Twitter posts to members of Congress. And yet another industry-led coalition, called Partnership for a New Economy, and supported by New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was rallying supporters to aim at crucial senators, state by state, to support the bill with a “virtual march.”

The efforts all point to a wave of unprecedented effort by Silicon Valley firms to make sure the overhaul of the federal immigration law goes in their favor. The omnibus bill, which arrived on the full Senate floor this week after intense negotiations in the Judiciary Committee, contains several provisions directed specifically at the technology sector. It makes it easier for foreign students who get science and engineering degrees at American universities to get permanent residency, creates a new temporary visa for entrepreneurs, and in the most contested clause, vastly expands how many temporary contract workers can be brought into this country under so-called H-1B visas, while also raising the minimum wages they must be paid.

The delicate political agreement could still fall apart, and for Silicon Valley, the temporary work visas expansion is by far the most delicate piece. Labor groups say the law should require these companies to hire Americans first. Industry groups call that undue regulatory interference. Both sides have tried to muster evidence to back their claims. And this week, the industry upped the ante by bringing human resources managers directly to Washington to persuade Congress of their need to bring in foreign workers to fill job openings. Organized by the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade group that includes companies like Apple and Oracle, the hiring managers told lawmakers that the demand for talent is so competitive that they sometimes blatantly poach from one another.

There are likely to be more calls on the Senate floor to require companies to show that they are making efforts to hire Americans.

Meanwhile, Senator Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas, introduced an amendment Wednesday to lower the investments that an entrepreneur would need to get permanent residency. The current bill requires a foreign entrepreneur to raise $100,000 in investments to gain a temporary visa and $500,000 for permanent residency. Among other things, the amendment would lower those thresholds: anyone who raises $250,000 in investments would be eligible for permanent residence.

The biggest push is yet to come. All eyes are on what the industry’s newest, most well-financed lobby, Fwd.us, backed by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, will do next. It has stepped into the immigration fight with expensive television advertisements for key Republicans who backed the immigration bill in the Senate Judiciary. Those ads included a television spot that praised the Keystone XL pipeline, a pet project of key Republican senators, and it cost Fwd.us support from some of its backers in Silicon Valley. It remains to be seen what kinds of political advertisements the group will bankroll next, and who they will back.