TECH
11/07/2012 12:42 pm ET | Updated Nov 07, 2012

Technology Industry Puts Immigration Reform As Top Hope For Obama's Second Term

Seth Bannon offers various perks to attract software developers to work for his startup: unlimited beer, a fixed-gear bicycle or $2,000 cash. Yet Bannon, founder of the New York-based social fundraising platform Amicus, still can't get the talent he wants because the top developers are foreign-born and can't secure visas to work in the country, he said.

Now that President Obama has been reelected, Bannon hopes that will soon change.

"Our immigration system is fundamentally at odds with the needs of American startups," Bannon said. "I think Obama gets it. You hear him talk about entrepreneurs more and more."

Obama's reelection Tuesday has renewed hopes in the tech community that the president will prioritize their top policy issue: immigration reform.

Many startups in New York's "Silicon Alley" say they can't hire enough qualified engineers because of a shortage of temporary work visas and green cards. They have been pushing for legislation that would allow more immigrants with high-tech skills to remain in the country. The issue was not a priority during the president's first term. But on the campaign trail, Obama hinted that it would be a priority in his next term.

And in his acceptance speech early Wednesday morning, he said "fixing our immigration system" would be one of the policy issues that he would address "in the coming weeks and months."

But to accomplish that, Obama will need help from Congress, which after Tuesday's election, remains divided. Democrats maintained control of the Senate and Republicans kept control of the House.

The issue of expanding visas for highly-skilled immigrants has faced opposition from both parties. The STEM Jobs Act, which would have granted more visas to immigrants with math and science degrees, was widely supported by the tech community. But it failed to pass this year in part because Democrats demanded more comprehensive immigration reform.

And expanding visa programs are politically controversial: Critics claim they produce an influx in foreign-born workers who depress wages and make it more difficult for American-born workers to find jobs in high-tech fields.

Over the past four years, Obama has received high marks from the tech community on some measures. He recently signed laws, for example, that will allow entrepreneurs to use “crowdfunding” to raise capital. But they've expressed disappointed that he hasn't accomplished more.

"He hasn’t done as much on tech as we would like but he's clearly leaning toward many of our policy goals," said Andrew Rasiej, chairman of NY Tech Meetup, which hosts monthly gatherings for tech entrepreneurs. Besides immigration, those goals include increasing investment in research and development and science and math education.

In a letter he sent last month to NY Tech Meetup, which has more than 27,000 members, Obama said he planned to recruit 10,000 math and science teachers over the next decade and train 2 million workers for high-tech jobs.

Now that the election is over, some are optimistic that Obama will give more attention to their top policy issue.

"We think the president was sincere in his talk about the need for immigriaton reform in the second term, and we think he'll have a receptive House and Senate who want to look at that issue as well," said Mark Heesen, the president of the National Venture Capital Association, an industry group.

One factor may help explain the tech community's optimism that Obama will prioritize their issues in his next term: the industry made sizable contributions to his campaign. Obama raised $7.1 million from members of the tech industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Another reason is that Obama got other major policy priorities -- like health care reform -- done during his first term, allowing him to tackle the issue of expanding visas in his second term, Bannon said.

"This president is a fan of the entrepreneur community and he realizes it’s a problem," Bannon said. "I'm hopeful we'll see leadership from him on this issue."

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