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US Tech sector backs immigration reform

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US tech firms are supporting the proposed comprehensive immigration reform bill that is being drafted by a group of eight senators. Tech industry associations such as the Technology CEO Council are also supporting the bill. Marshall Fitz of the pro-immigration reform Center for American Progress told US TV station ABC, 'From a tactical perspective, this is their best chance in the short term of getting the reforms they care most about'.

US tech firms have been supporters of skilled immigration reform for many years. They rely on foreign-born workers to fill many posts. This is in part because US-born students are not choosing to study computer science at university and in part because the US population is ageing, according to a report by The Partnership for a New American Economy, a pro-immigration reform pressure group founded by the mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg.

Tech firms 'really believe reform is good for the country'

But now they are backing the comprehensive reform bill currently being drafted by a group of eight senators known as the Gang of Eight. The US tech industry is supporting it for tactical reasons but Marshall Fitz says that many in the industry 'also really believe this broader immigration reform is good for the country'.

Washington commentators say that the Gang of Eight's bill has a reasonable chance of becoming law because it has broad-based support not only in Washington but in the country as a whole. President Obama said, shortly after his re-election in November 2012, that he was determined to introduce comprehensive reform of the US's immigration system in 2013.

He said, however, that he was prepared to leave the drafting of the legislation to a bipartisan group of senators who became the Gang of Eight. The Gang includes former Republican presidential nominee John McCain and young, up-and-coming Hispanic senator Marco Rubio. Among the Democrats is Chuck Schumer, a veteran advocate of reform from New York.

Building blocks of reform

The basic elements of the framework are
• The establishment of a 'path to citizenship' for the 11m illegal immigrants currently living in the US.
• Strengthening security along the Mexican border
• More resources to be put into tracking foreign nationals in the US on visas.
• Overhauling the US visa system to reduce backlogs.
• Awarding green cards to foreign technology graduates from US universities
• Rolling out a national 'e-verify' system to prevent illegal aliens from working in the US
• Establishment of a low-skilled migrant worker visa which would allow US employers to employ foreign workers in sectors such as agriculture where it is impossible to recruit US citizens.

While Washington insiders say that the Gang of Eight's bill has a good chance of success and while many senior Republicans have said they will support reform, in recent days, the air of cooperation has begun to sour.

Washington has been increasingly partisan in recent years and some commentators believe that Republican Congressmen will vote against a comprehensive bill because many Republican voters are opposed to any legislation that would create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Some say that it would be rewarding criminal behaviour and merely encourage more illegal immigrants into the US.

Virtual march for immigration reform

The US tech industry has not put all its eggs in one basket. Steve Case of AOL and the former boss of Mozilla are joining Michael Bloomberg's 'virtual march for immigration reform'. It aims to flood the offices of Washington politicians with emails, tweets and Facebook messages in support of reform.

Meanwhile, Microsoft, Intel and many other companies have been lobbying Congress in favour of reform. Last year, Microsoft proposed a bill allowing US tech firms to buy H-1B visas and green cards for overseas workers.

Microsoft spent $8m on lobbying in Washington in 2012, much of it on the immigration. Intel spent $3.7m and the Consumer Electronics Association spent $2.8m. Many other tech firms are also lobbying.

And if the Gang of Eight's bill is derailed on its way through Congress, as its predecessor, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, was, then there are currently several lesser bills which would see the US granting more green cards and H-1B visas to skilled workers.

The Immigration Innovation Act would see up to 300,000 H-1B visas granted each year as well as an increase in the number of green cards granted to foreign graduates of US universities. The Startup Bill 3.0 would see 75,000 green cards granted to foreign-born entrepreneurs and 50,000 more to graduates of US universities each year.

All in all, it seems that, one way or another, the US tech industry may get its way on skilled immigration reform this year. But nothing is certain in Washington.

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