By Julian Hattem - 07/05/14 05:41 PM EDT
The tech industry is looking to President Obama for an immigration win now that reform legislation has flamed out in Congress.
While advocates say they aren’t giving up on a comprehensive bill, some industry insiders say executive actions from Obama are now their last, best hope.
On Monday, Obama said Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was shelving immigration legislation for the rest of the year, and vowed the White House would go it alone with a series of unilateral actions.
The declaration was a blow to tech companies, which have poured millions of dollars into lobbying efforts and campaign ads aimed at getting a comprehensive bill across the finish line.
Groups backed by the tech industry have pushed Congress to allow more high-skilled immigrants to work in the United States as engineers and programmers, and say an increase in visas is crucial for filling gaps in the workforce.
But with a sweeping overhaul out of reach, lobbyists are turning their attention to moves that Obama could make on his own that could benefit their Silicon Valley clients, including changes to green cards and rules about the way immigrant family members and relatives are counted.
“It’s not a substitute for legislation and without broader reforms the problems that we have will continue, but this should alleviate some of the issues,” said the lobbyist, who asked not to be identified by name.
Another tech lobbyist suggested Obama might be able to act on his own to reduce the backlog of H-1B visas, which allow high-skilled foreign workers to stay in the country temporarily.
“I think the industry as a whole will take any reform they can get,” the second industry lobbyist said.
“But [immigration reform is] a big deal,” the lobbyist continued. “And it’s obviously a really big problem and it’s becoming a business problem for all of us, and we have to figure out how to go forward.”
Tech companies have been among the strongest proponents of immigration reform, drawing accusations that they are trying to undermine the U.S. workforce by securing a cheap supply of foreign labor.
A spokesman for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has been critical of the immigration reform efforts, expressed frustration with the tech industry’s new stance.
“The White House has already acted unilaterally to expand guest workers admissions, reducing employment and wages for American workers,” Stephen Miller said in a statement to The Hill. “Unsurprisingly, immigration lobbyists are hoping the president’s demonstrated lack of concern for unemployed American STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] workers will continue.”
Much of the criticism from the right has centered on FWD.us, the group launched last year by Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg that has spent millions of dollars on pressure ads, many of them directed at Republicans.
Joe Green, the founder and president of FWD.us, said in a statement that Americans are “deeply frustrated that House Republicans have thus far failed to bring legislation to a vote,” and called the inaction “unacceptable.”
The blame game stands in stark contract to early 2013, when the immigration reform push began in a burst of optimism.
Mitt Romney had lost the election partly due to his weak showing with Hispanics, sparking calls in the GOP to deal with the immigration issue before Democrats forge an ironclad bond with the quickly growing demographic.
The Senate passed a massive immigration reform bill last summer with bipartisan support, though House Republicans rejected it as weak on border security and pledged to purse reforms in a piecemeal fashion.
But the push in the House for legislation ran aground in January, when GOP leaders presented “principals” for immigration reform that included a path to legal status for illegal immigrants, upsetting many in their conference.
Boehner now says Republicans do not trust Obama to hold up his end of any deal by enforcing the law, making a deal on immigration all but impossible.
The surprise primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) last month hardened the belief among some Republicans that they should not cut a deal with Democrats.
Cantor’s primary challenger, Dave Brat, attacked the GOP leader for floating a path to citizenship for children brought to the country illegally. One of the ads that Brat ran against him featured a picture of Cantor standing side-by-side with Zuckerberg.
“I say we’re fairly pessimistic in the near to medium term before the next presidential election,” the first tech lobbyist said about the chances for a bill.
Still, tech advocates aren’t waving the white flag, and say the midterm elections could persuade the GOP to give immigration reform a second look.
“A lot of these issues will either come into play potentially in a lame-duck session, but probably more likely in the next Congress, when things get settled down and you have different margins in the House and Senate,” said Mike Hettinger, the head of public sector issues at the TechAmerica trade group.
“It will give people either more or less incentive to try to work on these issues.”
Without change, another tech advocate said, Republicans “continue to dig themselves into a deeper and deeper hole” in national elections.
One advocate said the culture of Silicon Valley has fostered a strong belief that all is not lost, no matter how grim things appear in Congress.
“If the tech companies let things like, ‘this is too hard,’ or, 'we can’t do this right now,’ be an acceptable answer, their business models wouldn’t work,” said C.R. Wooters, deputy executive director at the Technology CEO Council.
“I think we would tell Washington the same thing we tell our companies: Go back to work and come back when you’ve got it working right,” he said.