Silicon Valley and immigrant groups find common cause

  • Article by: SOMINI SENGUPTA
  • New York Times
  • February 12, 2013 - 11:08 PM


– What do computer programmers and illegal immigrants have to do with each other?

When it comes to the sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws that Congress is considering,, the answer is everything.

Silicon Valley executives, who have long pressed the government to provide more visas for foreign-born math and science brains, are joining forces with an array of immigration groups seeking comprehensive changes in the law. And as momentum builds in Washington for a broad revamping, the tech industry has more hope than ever that it will finally achieve its goal: the expanded access to visas that it says is critical to its own continued growth and that of the economy as a whole.

Signs of the industry’s stepped-up engagement on the issue are visible everywhere. Prominent executives met with President Obama last week. Start-up founders who rarely abandon their computers have flown across the country to meet with lawmakers.

Tuesday, the Technology CEO Council, an advocacy organization representing companies like Dell, Intel and Motorola, had meetings on Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, Steve Case, a founder of AOL, is scheduled to testify at the first Senate hearing this year on immigration legislation, alongside the head of the deportation agents’ union and the leader of a Latino civil rights group.

The push comes as a clutch of powerful Senate Republicans and Democrats have reached a long-elusive agreement on some basic principles of a “comprehensive” revamping of immigration law. Separately, a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate in late January — whose co-sponsors include Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — focuses directly on the visa issue.

In part, the new alliance between the tech industry and immigration groups was born out of the 2012 elections and the rising influence of Hispanic voters.

“The world has changed since the election,” said Peter J. Muller, director of government relations at Intel, pointing out that the defeat of many Republican candidates had led to a softening of the party’s position on broad changes to immigration law. “There is a focus on comprehensive. We’re thrilled by it.”

“At this point,” he added, “our best hope for immigration reform lies with comprehensive reform.”

Case, the AOL co-founder, who now runs an investment fund, echoed that sentiment after meeting with the president last week.

“I look forward to doing whatever I can to help pass comprehensive immigration reform in the months ahead,” he said, “and ensure it includes strong provisions regarding high-skilled immigration, so we are positioned to win the global battle for talent.”

That sort of sentiment delights immigrants’ rights advocates.

“The stars are aligning here,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

“You’ve got the politics of immigration reform changing. You’ve got tech leaders leaning in not just for high-skilled but for broader immigration reform.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who is co-sponsoring the bill to increase the number of visas available for highly skilled immigrants, said the cooperation went both ways.

“All the talk about the STEM field — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — has awakened even those who aren’t all that interested in the high-tech world,” he said.

While the growing momentum has surprised many in Washington, comprehensive change is not a sure thing, especially in the Republican-controlled House.


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