The U.S. tech industry has been fighting for reform of the country's immigration system for years. On Thursday, President Obama gave the industry what they called welcomed help -- but that's not nearly all they want.
Fwd.us, the immigration reform group spearheaded by Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, celebrated the president's broader moves to halt the deportation of million of immigrants in the United States. Steps to help high-tech foreign students and graduates work in the country longer are also encouraging, said the group's acting president, Todd Schulte.
But "to be clear, these actions are no substitute for legislation," Schulte said. "Fwd.us is proud to be part of this step forward, but we have lots of work to do."
What exactly did Obama do on immigration policy? First, he has directed the Department of Homeland Security to begin expanding a popular program, Optional Practical Training, that allows foreign students and recent graduates who attended U.S. colleges to work in the country longer. The program already allows so-called STEM workers, those who specialize in science, technology, engineering and math, to stay in the country for an extended period, 29 months. Under Obama's plan, those students and recent graduates would be able to stay longer and what is counted as a STEM worker could be broadened. The details will be worked out by DHS.
Acknowledging long-standing complaints that there is currently too little oversight of the OPT program, Obama called on DHS to ensure that colleges better manage the students and recent graduates who are participating in the program.
Obama also acted to make it easier for foreign entrepreneurs to come to the United States. He called on immigration officials to come up with a way, on a case-by-case basis, to let in start-up founders even before they have proven they will produce "significant public benefit" -- the current standard. It would be easier for entrepreneurs with the backing of U.S. investors or those who "hold the promise" of developing new technologies or who are pursuing cutting-edge research to stay in the United States, according to a DHS memo.
In addition, Obama called on immigration officials to make it easier for workers to move between jobs while waiting for a green card and for U.S. firms to transfer their foreign workers into the country.
Tech companies praised these moves. But some critics argued that together they will expand an underpaid, temporary workforce that will compete with U.S. workers.
"The President's concession to corporate demands for even greater access to temporary visas that will allow the continued suppression of wages in the tech sector," the Communications Workers of America, a union group with members in the tech industry, said in a statement.
The OPT program does not have minimum wage or salary requirements, Neil Ruiz, an associate fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted in a blog post. "OPT is missing these important protections since it was originally created as an educational program to provide a year of work experience,
Those deeply engaged in the immigration debate are now digging through the details of Obama's proposed changes to figure out exactly how they might affect the tech community.
Mostly, though, there was a sense that Obama's moves do little to remove the burden on Congress to act.
"While we appreciate the president’s efforts to address the problems in our employment-based system, and look forward to further details, it is disappointing that neither he nor Congress have been able to seize the opportunity to accelerate economic growth by fixing our broken immigration system," Dean Garfield, president and chief executive of the Information Technology Industry Council, said in a statement.
All of which means that the tech industry's battle over immigration now has at least two fronts -- working with immigration officials to figure out the rules for Obama's executive actions, and keeping up pressure on Congress to address the industry's concerns about the effect of immigration on U.S. innovation.