President Obama advocated for immigration reform for highly skilled workers on the campaign trail and then again during the State of the Union. Now, entrepreneurs want to make sure it’s part of any comprehensive immigration deal. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The lobbying campaign to ease immigration restrictions for highly educated foreigners is expanding and evolving, with advocates shifting attention toward a comprehensive deal rather than continuing their attempts to drive through smaller, targeted legislation.

A collection of entrepreneurs, investors and business leaders are launching the latest assault on Monday, building what they hope will grow into a large, online army of immigration lobbyists to take part later this spring in a “virtual march” on Washington. Using various portals on the Internet, their goal is to round up and educate as many people as possible about the economic appeal of attracting high-skilled immigrants, and then launch a social media blitz to appeal to Congress some time in April.

“Right now, we’re identifying our core group of online influencers and urging executives from the social media platforms to be ready to push the message on the day of the march,” Somesh Dash, principal at Institutional Ventures Partners in Silicon Valley, said in an interview. “We want to enable everyone to in just a few clicks tell their local congressional representatives that this is an important part of immigration reform.”

In addition to Dash, the campaign is being spearheaded by investors and serial entrepreneurs like AOL and Revolution LLC Co-founder Steve Case and Foundry Group co-founder Brad Feld as well as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Partnership for a New American Economy. The idea, organizers said, is to emulate the success of similar online demonstrations to protest a pair of anti-piracy bills last year.

“We saw what the tech community could do when it rallied to stop some SOPA and PIPA,” Case said in an interview, alluding to carefully orchestrated protests from the likes of Google, Reddit and Wikipedia that effectively killed support for the legislation in the nation’s capital. “We hope that will be the case again here.”

The virtual march is the latest in a surge of lobbying efforts by entrepreneurs to rally support for legislation to allow more foreign-born entrepreneurs and professionals to work and start businesses in the United States, particularly those who earn advanced degrees in science and math from American universities. In their appeal to policy makers, many have cited research showing that the country isn’t producing enough skilled workers in fields like computer engineering and software development to meet rising demand from young businesses, while others point to a recent decline in immigrant entrepreneurship that they say bodes poorly for job creation and economic growth.

In the past few years, their efforts have spawned a handful of proposals from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including bills that would create a new visa category for immigrants who secure venture funding and others that would attach green cards to graduate degrees. The proposals were intentionally narrow in scope, in hopes they wouldn’t get tangled up in larger fights over more contentious issues like border security.

However, Obama’s overwhelming success courting Latino voters in the last election has forced many Republicans to reconsider their stance on immigration reform, and suddenly, a comprehensive package not only appears possible — it may be the only path available for those pursuing high-skilled immigration reform.

“There is no doubt the ground has shifted since the election, and voices who weren’t talking about comprehensive reform are now talking about comprehensive reform,” John Feinblatt, chief policy advisor for Mayor Bloomberg, said in an interview. “People can count heads and count votes, and reality has struck that the most likely solution is to make high-skilled immigration reform part of a comprehensive bill.”

The change in tactic has been driven largely by Obama’s increasingly aggressive push for a grand bargain on immigration. The president has insisted in several recent speeches, including the State of the Union, that he will not support any piecemeal proposals.2

In response, while they aren’t abandoning support for smaller proposals (like the Startup Act, which was recently reintroduced in the Senate), start-up activists have have turned their immediate attention to ensuring that any comprehensive deal includes help for highly skilled workers and entrepreneurs before it’s sent to the White House.

The organizers of the virtual march are charting the same course, noting that they hope to influence the decisions made by what’s being called the “Gang of Eight” — a bipartisan group of senators who last month unveiled an outline for a far-reaching immigration plan, the details of which they are still fleshing out.

“It’s become clear that it’s not going to move unless it’s part of a more comprehensive solution,” Case said of the campaign for high-skilled immigration reform, adding that lawmakers have a window of “political opportunity” that may last no more than a few months. “If everybody just advocates for their narrow issues, we’re not going to be able to knit together a coalition to pass anything.”

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