Tech industry targets GOP senators to pass immigration reform

The tech industry is targeting six GOP senators in the hopes of building a supermajority behind the Senate’s immigration bill.

The bill approved this week by the Judiciary Committee significantly increases the cap on H1-B visas commonly used by tech firms, and softened tougher restrictions on their use.

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To preserve that victory, tech companies are trying to help the bill’s supporters secure enough GOP votes to pass the bill out of the full Senate with as close to 70 votes as possible. Such a majority would increase the bill’s odds in the House.

Tech lobbyists are wooing Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Jerry Moran (R-Kans.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to support the bill.

All have a tech presence in their state or appear open-minded on supporting an overhaul of the country's immigration rules.

Other names that have been floated include Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.).

Here’s a look at some of the main tech targets:


Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.)

Major companies like Microsoft, Intel and Oracle have offices in New Hampshire, which makes the freshman senator a natural choice for tech to reach out to.

“A fair number of H-1Bs that are in the green card queue work in these places because they’re mostly research and development centers,” a tech lobbyist said. “This is a perfect example about why the bill is important. It would ensure these people get permanent residency.”

Ayotte is also close with key Republican Gang of Eight members Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who she has partnered with on various defense issues on the Armed Services Committee.

Her office has already reached out to companies to understand the tech industry's perspective on the bill, according to an industry source.


Sen. Jerry Moran (Kansas)

Moran is viewed as potential swing vote because of his past work on high-skilled immigration legislation.

He has introduced bills that would create a visa category for tech entrepreneurs and allow foreign graduates with degrees in advanced technical fields from American universities to stay in the U.S.

The Kansas Republican's previous legislation is similar to some of the measures in the Senate immigration bill that cover highly skilled workers, according to tech lobbyists.


Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.)

Tech is also courting Paul, who is headed out West to Silicon Valley next week and is expected to meet with tech representatives, among others, the Washington Post reported. During his visit, tech representatives will likely underscore why getting an immigration bill across the finish line is so important to the industry.

Paul, known for his staunch libertarian views, has been a key ally for the tech industry on past policy battles. He notably came out against the Protect IP Act, the Senate's version of the Stop Online Piracy Act, early in the debate against the anti-piracy bills. 

He also came to Apple's defense during a Senate hearing this past week that examined the company's methods for avoiding taxes, where he said the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations should "apologize to Apple" for holding the hearing.

Tech insiders also consider Paul as a potential ‘yes’ vote because he has endorsed a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living illegally in the country—one of the thorniest areas of the immigration debate that has divided Republicans.

 Supporting a comprehensive immigration reform bill could also be in the best political interest for the rumored 2016 presidential contender. After an overwhelming majority of Latinos voted for President Obama in the 2012 election, Republicans are working hard to attract more Latino voters and broaden its base of supporters.

Voting in favor of the immigration bill’s passage could help Paul win over a wider group of voters.


Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio)

Portman, a rumored candidate for vice president in previous years, has also been mindful of the GOP’s need to “get themselves in a better place with a broader range of voters,” an industry source said.


Sen. Susan Collins (Maine)

Collins' state is home to Fairchild Semiconductor's facility in South Portland, which employs 800 workers. 

The South Portland site used to be headquarters for the company before it was shifted to Silicon Valley in 2011. 

Tech insiders also note that Maine isn't far from the hub of universities in Boston, where top universities like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology train top foreign students in math, science and engineering that could launch startups in the Northeast. 


Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska)

Alaska is better known for its fishing and timber industries rather than its ties to the tech industry. However, some industry sources note that the provisions in the Senate bill covering low-skilled workers may attract Murkowski's support.  

In addition to courting Republican support for the bill, the tech industry will have to fend off attempts by labor groups to remove language added to the bill after a deal between Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) that won Hatch’s support in committee for the Senate measure.

The deal eased the requirements that employers would have to follow when hiring highly skilled foreign workers on an H-1B visa, so they are more palatable to the tech industry.

Tech companies had complained that the requirements included in the original version of the Gang of Eight bill were burdensome and would prevent them from procuring the visas they needed to hire top foreign talent.

Labor groups, however, claimed Hatch’s amendments would chip away at protections for American workers that were built into the bill and required companies to offer jobs to them first before looking overseas. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka issued scathing statement this week that called Hatch’s amendments “unambiguous attacks on American workers” and vowed to fight them on the floor.

“As president Trumka stated, we're going to continue to try to make the very constructive and very positive [immigration] bill even better and that includes trying to reinstate the worker protections that were weakened by the Hatch amendments,” said AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser. “We'll probably do that on the Senate floor and try to work with allies to get that done.”

Tech lobbyists are already on guard against these efforts as the bill is headed to the floor.

“We’ll have our antenna up on attempts by organized labor to peel back on the H-1B amendments,” a tech lobbyist said.