It has begun.
A bipartisan group of Senators introduced their “framework” Monday for comprehensive immigration reform, and today President Obama delivered remarks in Las Vegas to “continue a conversation with the American people about the need for comprehensive immigration reform,” according to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
Now, much of the focus around immigration reform will be on the 11 million illegal immigrants estimated to be in the United States. The size of that population alone means that how any comprehensive reform package addresses illegal immigration will be the subject of intense focus. The president addressed that in his speech, saying that he believed “we need to stay focused on enforcement” and that “we have to deal with the ... people who are here illegally.”
But there is another group of stakeholders — tech companies, particularly those based in Silicon Valley — that have been calling for immigration reform as well.
This group, particularly companies in the Valley, backed the Obama campaign in the lead-up to November to the tune of millions in campaign donations. Their focus, however, is on legal, skilled immigration.
“We’ve got to bring our legal immigration system into the 21st century,” said the president during his remarks Tuesday, adding that this includes making it easier for foreign entrepreneurs to found companies in the United States and more smoothly pave the way for immigrants educated in the U.S. to stay and work in the States.
Let’s look at the bipartisan Senate framework. Wonkblog’s Dylan Matthews outlines the five most important sentences in the document, which, given its brevity, is hardly as detailed as the full bill text would be. But among the most important sentences in Matthews’s list is one that addresses, at least in part, the tech sector’s concern:
Our immigration proposal will award a green card to immigrants who have received a PhD or Master’s degree in science, technology, engineering or math from an American university.
Enter the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013. The proposal was formally introduced Tuesday by a bipartisan group of 10 senators, including Rubio. It would, among other provisions, increase the H-1B visa cap from 65,000 to 115,000, with a “market-based ... escalator,” that could allow the cap to adjust to as high as 300,000. In terms of green card caps, the bill would free up unused greencards to be used in subsequent years and exempt certain categories of immigrants from the annual cap.
“This bill is not in competition with any other effort. It complements it. In fact, it’s an indespensable part of it,” said Rubio during remarks on the Senate floor Tuesday. “ You cannot comprehensively reform America’s legal immigration system if it does not include visa provisions for graduates in science, technology engineering and math."
In a statement of resounding support for the Innovation Immigration Act, IBM Governmental Programs Vice President Christopher Padilla said in a statement, “These elements are critical for companies like ours so that we can support our clients and drive economic growth.”
And the praise continued with Microsoft General Counsel and Executive Vice President Brad Smith releasing a statement saying, “Today’s introduction in the Senate of the bipartisan Immigration Innovation Act of 2013 is a major step forward. This legislation addresses the country’s immigration and education needs in a thoughtful and impactful manner.”
Meanwhile, Intel’s director of government relations, Peter Muller, wrote Tuesday, “the current focus on immigration reform presents the best opportunity we have seen in years to make needed fixes to the employment side of the immigration equation and the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013 is an excellent start.”
The “Gang of 8” framework, the Innovation Immigration Act, the president’s policy outline as made in his speech Tuesday and the ensuing debate are, for the tech-sector, a significant step forward after years of calls for skilled immigration reform. But, as the president said Tuesday, “immigration has always been an issue that inflames passions.” It remains to be seen whether those passions will be channeled to propel comprehensive immigration reform into reality — for skilled and unskilled immigrants alike — or stop it dead in its tracks.