With Immigration, Tech CEOs' Policy Pitch Runs Into Washington Realities

As tech leaders lobby for openness in ''trade and talent'' immigration reform hits a skid.
In Washington, high-minded policy notions and hard-nosed political battles share close quarters. Such was the case last week, as a council of top U.S. tech executives issued a report calling for policies that embrace openness in trade and talent, while a political compromise that would have reshaped immigration law for skilled workers looked likely to unravel.

The Technology CEO Council's "Great Nation" report aims to shape the thinking and policies of U.S. presidential candidates, says Bruce Mehlman, executive director of the council. Members of the council--which includes Dell, EMC, IBM, and Intel, and is chaired by Motorola CEO Ed Zander--have met with some Democratic and Republican candidates to pitch the tech CEOs' views about "innovation and global interconnectiveness," says Mehlman, declining to name which candidates. The report (available at offers high-level policy takes on problems facing the U.S. economy, from encouraging business R&D to allowing free trade to attracting "the best and brightest workers" worldwide.

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That's where economic theory is colliding with political reality. The tech sector is pushing to let far more foreign professionals work in the United States under the H-1B temporary visa program and to streamline green card processes so those workers could more easily become permanent residents. Those proposals--including raising the 65,000 cap on unrestricted H-1B visas to at least 115,000--are part of the Senate's recent comprehensive immigration reform bill that, despite strong support from President Bush, has stalled.

Don't get blindsided by offshoring, Blinder warns

Don't get blindsided by offshoring, Blinder warns
Without comprehensive immigration reform, the odds are against any major reworking of H-1B visa policies, including raising the cap, says Mehlman, since attention in Washington will shift to the presidential election, not piecemeal immigration-related reform. Others still see a chance with comprehensive reform. "There has been a lot of lobbying on high-skill immigration, so it is likely that something happens by this year," says Ron Hira, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute and public policy professor on leave from Rochester Institute of Technology.

The competition for tech talent, and the competition for high-end tech jobs, was the topic of a hearing last week on "the globalization of R&D and innovation" before the House Committee on Science and Technology. There, Alan Blinder, director of the Center for Economic Policy Studies at Princeton University, testified that 30 million to 40 million U.S. jobs could potentially move offshore, though not all of those will. "We will be better off as a nation if government, business, and the schools approach that occupational migration deliberately, thoughtfully, and with appropriate policy responses, rather than letting it take us by surprise," Blinder said. That means making the United States "a hotbed of business creativity and innovation" by nurturing basic research, industrial R&D, creative management, entrepreneurialism, and venture capital investing.

Another way to ease offshoring's effects, Mehlman says, is to change government-sponsored retraining, such as the Trade Adjustment Act, to fund service workers who lose jobs to outsourcing, not just those who make products. The Technology CEO Council report also urges the United States to embrace policies and programs that encourage more people to enter fields related to science, technology, engineering, and math.

Yet the Tech Council goes only so far in financially supporting science and tech education. It opposes an amendment in the comprehensive immigration reform to raise employer H-1B visa fees from $1,500 to $5,000 to fund scholarships for science, tech, engineering, and math grads. Says Mehlman, "It's effectively an innovation tax."