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How the Technology Sector Will Help Achieve Comprehensive Immigration Reform

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"Tech lobbyists say immigration reform is needed desperately," reports a recent Politico story. The technology sector -- long an economic engine that has grown and created jobs despite the last two decades of economic tumult -- has always called for more immigration. The sector, driven by innovation and the need for engineering Ph.Ds who can design the next best thing, knows its vitality is threatened by America's faltering domestic STEM pipeline. But the tech sector's recent calls for comprehensive immigration reform -- stepping out of its usual requests for more H1B visas -- could mean the difference in the long fight to bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows, and create a path to citizenship.

Consumer Electronics Association CEO Gary Shapiro was quoted in Politico saying, "We really have no problem with a path to citizenship."

"We need this desperately," has dramatically changed his message.

Shapiro's tone was markedly different than the one he took in November when he harshly criticized the idea of rolling high-skilled worker visas into the mix with other elements of immigration. At the time, the House was weighing the STEM Jobs Act bill sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) to shift 55,000 diversity visas to green cards for STEM graduates. "I'd love to see a deal, but it seems incomprehensible to me that we would prefer random people who may be illiterate, do not speak the language, have health problems [and are] a burden on society over healthy, educated Ph.D.s," Shapiro said at the time. "It is the height of arrogance of a nation to say that we should pick random people anywhere in the world to come here over the people we are training."

Earlier in March, Verizon, the nation's leading wireless company, endorsed comprehensive immigration reform in a letter to the Senate's "gang of 8" working to identify passable immigration legislation. The letter drew wide accolades from across the civil rights community, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Council of La Raza, the National Hispanic Council on Aging, the NAACP, and others.

Driving the business community's shift toward support for comprehensive immigration reform is a growing, educational relationship between the civil rights community and the business sector, which have worked together to address STEM readiness, and drive awareness of the broadband divide, for example.

But there is also strategic imperative. The technology sector, like many others working to advance legislation, recognizes the growing clout of the Hispanic leadership community. Broadening its message, and collaborating with a national leadership that has been calling on the president and Congress to move on comprehensive immigration reform at each turn makes practical sense.

Lack of movement on immigration threatens American competitiveness in multiple ways, as ABC News Jordan Fabian's story points out:

A study released by the Kauffman Foundation last October showed that the proportion of tech start-ups founded by immigrants has shrunk by one percentage point to 24.3 percent since 2005 and is on the verge of further decline.

"For several years, anecdotal evidence has suggested that an unwelcoming immigration system and environment in the U.S. has created a 'reverse brain drain.' This report confirms it with data," Dane Stangler, research and policy director at the Kauffman Foundation, said in a statement. "To maintain a dynamic economy, the U.S. needs to embrace immigrant entrepreneurs."

The U.S.'s immigration system has put it at a competitive disadvantage with many countries that have adopted policies that welcome foreign entrepreneurs to start new businesses, including its next-door neighbor Canada. On April 1, that country will begin offering special visas for foreign entrepreneurs to join venture capital firms or found start-ups of their own.

The Nation of Immigrants infographic produced by Rutgers LIN@R shows both shifting attitudes on immigration reform overall, and the dissatisfaction of a US Latino community demanding action, as 59 percent of Latinos polled say they disapprove of the way the administration has handled deportations of unauthorized immigrants. Latinos' emerging political clout, reflected in game-changing turnout for the 2012 elections, make this dissatisfaction a more potent political factor than it has been in the past.

Steve Case, the billionaire founder of AOL who sits on President Obama's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and runs a venture capital firm called revolution, has visited with president Obama on this issue, and is an activist in support of comprehensive immigration reform that would both allow more high-skilled immigrants to the country, and create a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented residents -- especially if they choose to earn a STEM degree.

Case recently testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of comprehensive immigration reform, saying, "While my main focus is on talent, I also believe we need to work together to create a dignified path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers currently in the country, strengthen border security, and crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal workers."

Case's testimony sums it up nicely:

"History teaches us that the most open and inclusive societies tend to be the most successful: Spain in the early 1400s pioneering navigation and global trade; Italy in the 1500s advancing science and learning. But no country has benefited more from immigration than the United States. We began as a startup founded by immigrant settlers who left a difficult situation to build a better life. What distinguishes us is that we have always been a magnet for risk-taking men and women from across the world hoping to start businesses, innovate, and contribute. That is part of our DNA. It is why in the 20th century we created more wealth, opportunity, and economic growth than any other nation.

We will be closely watching the gang of 8 for a framework leading to legislation this congressional session. While advocates have been at this stage several times, perhaps the new political realities, and a vocal business community will make the difference in negotiating successful compromise legislation.

Jason A. Llorenz, Esq. Is Senior Fellow, LIN@R at Rutgers University School of Communication and Information Studies; he is also Director of Innovation Policy for LIN@R. Follow him on Twitter @llorenzesq and follow LIN@R technology tweets @LINAR_technolog.

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