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Immigration Debate Puts Silicon Valley on One Side, Labor on Another, and a Congressman in the Middle

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, June 27 2013

From right to left: Y Combinator Co-Founder Paul Graham, Medisas founder Gautam Sivakumar (in Newcastle, UK), Double Robotics Co-Founders David Cann and Marc DeVidts

The Senate on Thursday voted 68-32 to pass a landmark comprehensive bill that would reform the immigration system.

Silicon Valley groups representing tech companies and founders support the legislation and have been urging their members to call their senators to approve the bill. Thursday's action is the latest of several that the groups have taken, and won't be the last as they prepare to shift their attention to the House, which has yet to introduce a similar piece of legislation.

"Far too often, our current immigration system bars high-skilled workers with expertise in the STEM fields from making vital contributions to our economy and instead exports these workers to competing global markets," said Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association. "By increasing the number of available H-1B work visas,expanding the green card program, and eliminating current obstacles, this bill will ensure that America remains an economic powerhouse in the global landscape."

Among others, the Internet Association represents Airbnb, Amazon.com, AOL, eBay, Expedia, Facebook, Gilt, Google, IAC, LinkedIn, Monster Worldwide, Path, Practice Fusion, Rackspace, Salesforce.com, SurveyMonkey, TripAdvisor, Yahoo!, and Zynga.

Among other things, the relevant portions of the Senate bill would increase the annual number of temporary visas issued to high-skilled immigrants to 100,000 from 65,000, with a possibility of issuing more if there's a run on the visas in any given year. It would also increase the number of visas issued to foreign-born science and technology graduates to 25,000 from 20,000 and introduces startup visas for foreigners. The bill would also allow spouses of H-1B visas to find work in the United States.

Advocacy in support of immigration reform has, like much of Silicon Valley's evolving Washington agenda, created strange bedfellows. FWD.us, the Silicon Valley technology advocacy backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and operated by his friend, Valley fixture Joe Green, has been working for months now to organize bipartisan support for immigration reform — using tactics such as sponsoring ads heralding a Republican and Democratic lawmaker for both supporting the Keystone XL pipeline. That effort ended up costing FWD some of its high-profile support.

At an event the group held Tuesday evening in Mountain View, FWD showed that it hadn't lost the entire Democratic Party. Among the guest speakers at YCombinator headquarters was Rep. Mike Honda, a Democrat facing Ro Khanna, a likely primary challenger next year. He is a former Obama administration official who has gone out of his way to demonstrate the support of Silicon Valley luminaries.

"I think it was a good opportunity for members of Congress -- and this member of Congress -- to hear from the startup community," Green told me.

Honda, whose district now encompasses the Valley, sat on a panel that evening with Brian Chesky, co-founder of AirBNB, Drew Houston, founder and CEO of Dropbox, Pete Kooman, co-founder of Optimizingly, and Patrick Collison, a manager at Stripe and founder of Auctomatic, which he sold in 2008 partly because of immigration issues. Y Combinator's co-founder, Paul Graham, moderated the discussion.

Despite Northern California's historical significance as a bastion of the left, the evening showcased just how far apart dot-com entrepreneurs and die-hard Democrats can be. Entrepreneurs are pushing for more H1-B visas; union leaders, part of the Democratic Party's core constituency, have objected to the visas as a form of low-paid indentured servitude, arguing that they fill jobs that would otherwise go to Americans.

"I think it’s a shame that our recruitment is limited to the United States, and this notion, the Labor argument that there is a zero sum of talent is ridiculous," Chesky said during the discussion. "Engineering, design and product are the only businesses where there are no cap on [our hiring of ] workers … there’s no cap on hiring engineers. We will hire any engineer. We can’t get enough. So no-one can ever take a job away, because we would double the team tomorrow if we could."

Chesky has had constant dealings with the U.S. immigration system because the very premise of his business plan was to start off as an international company. He wanted AirBNB's sharing services to be available around the planet, which meant that he needed to hire local managers around the world from the get-go. His plan was to have them spend half of their office hours in San Francisco, and the other half in their own country. But under current immigration rules, that's not possible.

Dropbox, a company that employs 130 engineers, and which has 100 million users, plans on opening an office in Dublin next Monday because it can't bring its new foreign staff to the United States. Optimizingly, which employs about 80 people in the United States, has another 10 in Europe. Kooman said that his company had recently interviewed about 20 people for a very specific kind of engineering position, and finally found someone in India. But the company spent a lot of time getting different kinds of visas for this engineer. It took them a year to get the right papers so that this engineer could start working for them.

As if to make the point that physical borders were increasingly an obstacle, some of the Y Combinator entrepreneurs attended remotely with the help of "Doubles," telepresence robots made by a another Y Combinator-backed startup, Sunnyvale-based Double Robotics. They navigated through the room, and through the cocktail-party crowd, by controlling the robot over the Internet. One such entrepreneur, Gautam Sivakumar, founder of a healthcare startup called Medisas, attended the meeting from Newcastle in the United Kingdom. He was there because the immigration rules are preventing him from working on his startup, even though it's been funded by U.S. investors. His immigration lawyer says that he won't be able to start working until August.

Graham, speaking on behalf of this crowd, asked Honda if he could "save us."

Honda was circumspect. In recent years immigration policy has been driven more by the goal of screening for terrorists than anything else, he said.

"We need to pass a bill, and come back to it," he said.

"We'll create big pressure for the House. And not to do something under the leadership of [House Speaker John] Boehner, and other folks will have reverberations. It could be costly," he added.

Honda also defended his labor colleagues in a conversation with reporters.

"Labor made lots of concessions in the administrative aspects of workers' rights," he said.

While labor law written in an earlier chapter of American manufacturing and industry don't neatly accommodate the new tech sector he said, policymakers needed to accommodate both unions and entrepreneurs.

The seven-term congressman is up for re-election next year.