Feb. 19, 2013 -- Since the last significant immigration reform effort in 2007, no industry has been more involved in lobbying on immigration than the tech sector.
Microsoft, the Redmond, Wash.-based software titan, has led the way on this issue, and it's joined by a host of other tech titans like Oracle, Intel and Facebook. Together, this group is making a concerted effort for changes that would allow them to tap into a pool of highly-skilled immigrant workers to staff positions in the United States.
For that reason alone, the influence of the tech industry is poised to be a major factor in securing passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, according to some advocates.
"I would say they are riding the wave," said Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the liberal Center for American Progress. He added that the work of the tech industry combined with conservative and Republican support for immigration reform, "may be the special formula that gets us across the finish line."
Over the past half-decade, immigration has become one of the most frequently lobbied issues by tech companies on Capitol Hill. Industry activity ramped up around the last effort at comprehensive immigration reform in 2007. Since that bill failed to pass Congress, tech companies and others have continued to court lawmakers and federal agencies on unresolved issues, such as expanding the number of visas for highly-skilled immigrants.
It's clear that the lingering problems with the nation's immigration laws, such as hard visa caps, have hurt the high-tech sector. A study released by the Kauffman Foundation last October showed that the proportion of tech start-ups founded by immigrants has shrunk by one percentage point to 24.3 percent since 2005 and is on the verge of further decline.
"For several years, anecdotal evidence has suggested that an unwelcoming immigration system and environment in the U.S. has created a 'reverse brain drain.' This report confirms it with data," Dane Stangler, research and policy director at the Kauffman Foundation, said in a statement. "To maintain a dynamic economy, the U.S. needs to embrace immigrant entrepreneurs."
The U.S.'s immigration system has put it at a competitive disadvantage with many countries that have adopted policies that welcome foreign entrepreneurs to start new businesses, including its next-door neighbor Canada. On April 1, that country will begin offering special visas for foreign entrepreneurs to join venture capital firms or found start-ups of their own.
This is why Microsoft, which spent more than $8 million on all lobbying efforts in 2012, listed immigration issues in 33 separate disclosure reports, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Intel spent more than $3.7 million on lobbying last year and listed immigration in 12 separate reports. And industry groups, like the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), also have played a major role. CEA spent over $2.8 million last year and lobbied on immigration issues at least on 12 separate occasions. Overall, nearly two dozen high-tech companies and associations lobbied on immigration issues in the last 12 months.
As they have for years, tech companies rely heavily on foreign-born software engineers. While the unemployment and underemployment rate remains high for Americans, there are not enough highly skilled people who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents to fill vacant positions at science, technology, and engineering firms.
There are a few reasons for that. The American workforce is both graying and shrinking, according to a 2012 report by The Partnership for a New American Economy, a pro-reform coalition formed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In addition, the growth rate of U.S. students majoring in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is among the lowest in any academic area, the report says.
That's a big part of why an expansion of STEM visas has become a focus of tech lobbying efforts.
The issue of tech and science visas has become one of the rare areas of immigration reform to receive broad support from both Republicans and Democrats in both chambers of Congress.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) underscored the consensus on tech visas in a January interview with The Wall Street Journal, saying, "I don't think there's a lot of concern in this country that we'll somehow get overrun by Ph.D.s and entrepreneurs."
Many tech companies, however, have also backed the push for a wider immigration reform effort, including a comprehensive package that could contain provisions like a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants or increased spending on border security. Fitz said the support is for both practical and humanitarian purposes.
"From a tactical perspective, this is their best chance in the short-term to get the reforms they care most about," such as more STEM visas and temporary workers, he said. "But [tech companies] also made it very clear that while that's where their interests lie, they also really believe this broader immigration reform is good for the country."
One of the most visible tech leaders stumping for reform is Steve Case, the co-founder and former CEO of America Online (AOL). Last week, he testified before a Senate committee on immigration reform, calling for an expansion of tech worker visas, but also supporting legislation that creates a pathway to citizenship for the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants.
While both Republicans and Democrats back the addition of visas for tech workers and entrepreneurs, the two parties haven't approached the issue in the same way. In the past, some Republicans have pushed for a piecemeal approach to immigration reform, where a bill related to tech visas might be voted on separately from other issues. Democrats want a comprehensive bill, and won't likely pass legislation related to the tech industry without a broader package of reforms.
That's helped thrust the tech sector, with deep pockets and a high need, into the middle of the country's immigration debate. Bruce Mehlman, the executive director of the Technology CEO Council, which includes the heads of companies like Intel, Qualcomm, IBM, and Dell, says that tech companies will play an important role as negotiations move forward.
"It's going to take a broad bipartisan compromise," he said. "Both sides are going to have to give a little bit on the extremely tough issues. And the tech industry is putting its energy behind that effort for the good of the nation."