SEPTEMBER 24, 2012
Last Thursday, the House took up a bill that would've helped foreign students who graduate from U.S. universities to stay in the U.S.--a measure long sought by a technology industry desperate for more high-skilled labor, something an Atlantic writer calls "the most obvious policy idea in America," and generally favored by politicos on both sides of the aisle.
Nevertheless, the bill failed, with enough Democrats voting against it to torpedo the needed two-thirds majority. The bill's author, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, wasted no time making election-year hay out of the defeat, while tech industry lobbyists scolded Congress for depriving America of the brainpower it needs to stay afloat.
It's possible that the measure was doomed from the start, in a season when neither party wants to miss a chance to blame the other for anything they can. And meanwhile, similar bills pushed by Democrats might have a chance sometime next year. But one voice that should be all over this debate was conspicuously absent: The rest of the pro-immigration movement. And if the status quo continues, it might not weigh in at all.
Here’s the thing about this most trodden of Washington battlefields: Even the people who are generally pro-immigration have their favorite immigrants. Big agriculture wants people to pick their crops. Service industries want people to work in restaurants and hospitals. Left-leaning advocacy groups just want families to be reunited, and for the undocumented to have a path to citizenship.
So what’s the problem? Shouldn’t people who need highly educated workers to stay in the U.S. get on board with the people who want all those other things? Following the failure of comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, it looks like pieces of the problem will get solved one at a time, and it takes a lot of muscle to make any one of them happen.
Right now, though, wounds left over from that fight still fester.
Frank Sharry, founder and director of America’s Voice, is a veteran of the immigration wars. He remembers reaching out to the business organization lobbying for high-skilled immigration in the 1990s—the predecessor to today’s tech-centric group Compete America—to see if they could forge a common platform.
“They said, ‘Thanks but no thanks. We’re popular with both parties, you are not. We represent the immigrants everybody’s for.’ They didn’t say it so bluntly, but we’re not stupid,” Sharry remembers, bitterly. “They were untouchable at the time. They were the new princes of Washington. I didn’t like it, but I could put myself in their shoes.”
Fast forward to 2007—the last best chance for a grand deal on comprehensive immigration reform. Groups on all sides of the issue had their gripes with the compromise bill, but Silicon Valley dropped its support completely, after getting burned on its pet provision. “We on the left, most of us held our nose and said ‘we’re for it, a defeat would be devastating,’” Sharry remembers. “High tech folks were silent, except for some that were actually vocally opposed. It was like, ‘oh my god.’”
In the latest push for substantial reform—the 2010 DREAM Act, which would’ve provided green cards to young undocumented immigrants—the silence of the tech industry (with the notable exception of Microsoft) might’ve actually moved the dial. “Guess what? We were five votes short,” Sharry says. “These are skilled kids who graduated from American high schools and colleges and who are doing babysitting jobs because they can’t get work permits. The companies that say ‘we need talented people’ were silent on this.”
Sharry doesn’t bother to hide his impatience with a powerful lobby that he thinks isn’t doing its part, and hints at talk of a new bill that would cut out the tech industry entirely. “Their tendency to go it alone is going to make it harder for us all to work together,” Sharry says. “Honestly, it’s like man, as someone who is supportive of the cause, I find myself feeling dissed. It’s just not a healthy dynamic. I overcome it, but it’s like dudes, what’s up?”
So I asked one of the main lobbyists for high skilled immigration, TechAmerica senior vice president Kevin Richards, what was up. He sighed. “It’s something I’ll admit our industry could do a better job of,” he said, predicting that there will be a new effort to work together next year.
Mike McGeary, who leads a new startup advocacy group called Engine, says he’s tried to convince the people pushing for comprehensive immigration reform that the piecemeal strategy is best—with a little strategic logrolling. “I believe we could get something in seven, eight, nine, ten years,” he says. “It’s just as important for our community to get together to say ‘we want to work with you.’”
If they did, it could be a powerful combination: Tech has money, and immigrants have votes. It’ll just require leaving some baggage behind.