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Tech titans team up to push immigration reform

Zuck calls for changes in H-1B, education, patents

Analysis Some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley have formed a political lobbying organization, dubbed Fwd.us, to press for more H-1B visas for industry, a comprehensive revamp of the US education and patent systems, and a pathway for talented people now in the US illegally to gain citizenship.

"In a knowledge economy, the most important resources are the talented people we educate and attract to our country," said Mark Zuckerberg in an Washington Post OpEd. "To lead the world in this new economy, we need the most talented and hardest-working people. We need to train and attract the best."

While Zuck is the public face of Fwd.us, the group has a roll call of supporters from the technology aristocracy: Google chairman Eric Schmidt, SpaceX supremo Elon Musk, Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior, Yahoo's Marissa Meyer, and the CEOs of Dropbox, Netflix, LinkedIn, Zynga, Yammer, and GroupOn.

The choice of Zuckerberg as the public face of Fwd.us and the inclusion of so many social media companies suggests that the group will try to sign up mass support via grassroots campaigning in the same way as pioneers in that field such MoveOn.org. There'll be lobbying cash as well, of course, but Fwd.us wants public muscle, too.

The group hasn't stated precise objectives as yet, but Zuckerberg argues that it's insanity to deport 40 per cent of non-US math and science students after paying for their education. Non-US entrepreneurs also need to be encouraged to move legally to US if they are willing to start up new businesses, he says.

The H-1B visa allowance of 65,000 needs to be increased as well, and Zuckerberg claims that every extra visa recipient will go on to create two or three more American jobs. Border controls need to be tight, he argues, but we shouldn't turn away talent. But the group has other goals, as well.

Zuckerberg said that one of Fwd.us' objectives is: "Investment in breakthrough discoveries in scientific research, and assurance that the benefits of the inventions belong to the public and not just the few."

"We will work with members of Congress from both parties, the administration and state and local officials. We will use online and offline advocacy tools to build support for policy changes, and we will strongly support those willing to take the tough stands necessary to promote these policies in Washington," he said.

Interesting Times

Many of the proposed goals of Fwd.us are the same sort of things we've been hearing from the technology industry for over a decade. Year after year, US industry tells the world that it can't find enough educated workers – and the H-1B visa issue is a long-time sticking point.

During the turn of the century tech boom, the IT industry successfully lobbied for an expansion in the H-1B visa system, which allows employees to sponsor someone to work in the US for six years. In 2000, Bill Clinton signed off on issuing 195,000 of these a year, although the quota was slashed to 65,000 in 2003.

Four years later, Bill Gates was back in Washington, testifying on the need for tech firms to be allowed to import more talent, and last year Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith suggested that companies could pay $10,000 per extra worker they hire under an H-1B system and $15,000 for every green card they get.

Critics of the H-1B system point out that with such high levels of US unemployment this is not a time to increase competition for jobs, and accuse the firms of pushing for an expansion because staff employed under the system work longer hours for less pay (although this is disputed), and find it harder to switch jobs.

Demand is certainly there for staff to come to the US – this year's allocation of H-1B visas was snapped up in four days flat. But what's unusual about Fwd.us is that it's stretching the visa issue into the highly contentious area of overall immigration reform, which is a point of political strife in Washington at the moment.

Elements of the Democratic party and pro-business Republicans are trying to get some form of immigration reform on the books. The huge number of illegal workers in the US has led some to call for the building of a wall across America's border with Mexico, and for others to campaign for a road to citizenship for illegals and a more open-door policy.

But both parties will have problems getting any such move through Congress. The Democrats' union supporters aren't wild about a massive increase in job competition, and there's no way the increasingly ascendant hard-right wing of the Republicans would countenance such a move – or allow the Democrats to, considering the electoral advantage it would bestow.

America's dirty secret

It might seem odd that a nation largely populated by immigrants should feel so strongly about slamming down the gates on talent wishing to enter the US, particularly since so much American industry relies on immigrants – both legal and illegal.

Here in California the farming industry would collapse overnight if the flow of illegal workers was stopped, and it's unlikely that farmers could find enough locals to fill the back-breaking harvesting work without having to pay a lot more than current rates. The same is true for many industries – from meat-packing to housework.

But much of the software industry relies on legal immigration, too. The fact is that US schools are not turning out enough qualified students to fill the roles available, thanks to decades of mismanagement in the education system, outdated teaching tools, and a critical lack of funding.

This isn't helped when technology firms themselves avoid paying tax as much as legally possible – something Fwd.us key contributor Eric Schmidt said he was "very proud" of. Similarly, Facebook turned over a billion dollars in profit in 2012 and yet got a tax refund of $429m via some accounting jiggery-pokery.

There is a lot of talent out there for technology firms to use, but it's older workers who are seen as less likely to work 20-hour days and cost a little more in salary terms. American firms are also unwilling to hire older workers over fears of crippling healthcare costs from insurance companies.

Fwd.us is no doubt sincere in its goals and will be putting its case forward in Washington, as well as recruiting the public to bolster its arguments. But whether it can be effective at overcoming such systemic problems remains to be seen. ®

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