Silicon Valley Dems hold out hope for high-skilled immigration reform

Although passing high-skilled immigration reform has eluded Congress for years, two House Democrats that represent the tech-dominated region of Silicon Valley argue there's still a chance it could come to fruition as Congress eyes a push for comprehensive immigration legislation next year.

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California Democrats Anna Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren argue that the resounding support President Obama received from Latinos on Election Day opened the door for both parties to come to the table on a comprehensive legislative package.

"I think there are many in the Republican party who now realize that they will never have a Republican president again unless they do something sensible on immigration reform," Lofgren told reporters. "I am willing to work with Republicans on this and I think people with good faith can compromise and come up with solid legislation. I plan to do my part."

Republicans and Democrats have both supported efforts to boost the number of visas available to foreign nationals with master's degrees and PhDs in technical fields from American universities. But previous legislation has been tangled up in the wider immigration debate.

House Republicans argue that high-skilled immigration reform will continue to hit a wall if it is part of a comprehensive immigration bill.

Eshoo said she previously ascribed to that belief, but shifted her opinion following the election.

"I agreed with it before, that we should do it in slices because we weren't getting anywhere. I don't believe that that's the path to success now," she said. "Two major political parties are clamoring to do comprehensive immigration reform, so that's a sea change."

Passing a high-skilled immigration bill has long been a top policy issue for Microsoft, Intel and other major Silicon Valley-based tech companies, which have traditionally been viewed as top supporters of President Obama.

Yet the White House opposed the lower chamber's passage of a bill by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) that would increase the number of visas for foreign-born graduates with advanced technical degrees from American universities by eliminating the diversity visa program. The Obama administration said while it supports high-skilled immigration reform, it would not support "narrowly tailored proposals that do not meet the president's long-term objectives with respect to comprehensive immigration reform."

The bill passed the House by a 245-139 vote on Friday.

Lofgren said she hasn't received any complaints from the tech industry on the White House's move and companies understand that Smith's bill is "dead on arrival" in the Senate.

"My constituents look at Lamar Smith and they see the author of the [Stop Online Piracy Act] and a guy who's not serious on immigration," Lofgren added. "They're not fooled by this."

At least one tech trade group publicly voiced disappointment with the White House's stand against Smith's measure, the STEM Jobs Act.

“We are disappointed that the short time frame and opposition from the White House will likely prevent final enactment this year. We hear from both political parties that they agree that we need to work toward a solution to allow the U.S. to attract the world’s best and brightest," Gary Shapiro, the CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, which counts Google and Microsoft as members, said in a statement. "We look forward to working with Congress on this issue.”

House Republicans argue that passing a high-skilled visa reform bill should be done in a piecemeal fashion and not as part of a larger comprehensive package.

"My view is if it didn't work in one big bang, take it in pieces and put it together, and that's what we did," Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said.

"The president's statement that he wanted to have comprehensive [legislation] is not credible," Issa added. "He had two full years and a campaign pledge in his first term to do this and offered no legislation."

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