SAN, FRANCISCO/WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama plans to make life a little easier for some foreign tech workers, but Silicon Valley representatives are disappointed that his immigration rule changes will not satisfy long-standing demands for more visas and faster green cards.
In a speech Thursday, Obama outlined plans to use his executive authority to help millions of undocumented people. He also announced minor adjustments to cut through red tape for visa holders and their families, including letting the spouses of certain H-1B visa holders get work permits.
“I will make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders have proposed,” Obama said.
The president’s moves will make it easier for entrepreneurs to work in the United States and extend a program letting foreign students who graduate with advanced degrees from U.S. universities to work temporarily in the United States.
But tech industry insiders said the changes, while positive, are limited.
“This holiday season, the undocumented advocacy community got the equivalent of a new car, and the business community got a wine and cheese basket,” complained one lobbyist, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Instead of more temporary H-1B visas, which allow non-U.S. citizens with advanced skills and degrees in “specialty occupations” to work in the country for up to six years, the 200,000-member U.S. chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers was hoping for measures to reduce the backlog of H-1B holders waiting for green cards.
“If this is all there is, then the president has missed a real opportunity,” said Russ Harrison, a senior legislative representative at the IEEE. “He could have taken steps to make it easier for skilled immigrants to become Americans through the green card system, protecting foreign workers and Americans in the process.”
For instance, the IEEE and technology companies want spouses and children to be excluded from employment-based green-card allotments, thereby increasing their availability for other foreign tech workers waiting for green cards.
Intel Corp. which has about 2,500 H-1B employees, will keep pressing legislators, said Peter Muller, the chipmaker’s director of government relations.
“In the end we really need Congress to act, so we’re going to continue that push,” Muller said.
Tech companies from Microsoft Corp. to Intel have long complained about being unable to find enough highly skilled employees and want Washington to increase the number of visas available for programmers, engineers and other specialized foreign professionals.
“Our focus really is on H-1B visas and trying to expand the number of talented technical professionals that can come to the U.S.,” Qualcomm CFO George Davis said Wednesday ahead of Obama’s announcement. “The way the regulations are drafted today there’s a lot of room for improvement.”
Major changes will require congressional action, however, and tech industry lobbyists and executives are worried that partisan rancor over Obama’s unilateral action could set back the chances for legislation.
“I don’t view this as a long-term solution, and I hope it doesn’t get in the way of a long-term solution,” said Dave Goldberg, chief executive of SurveyMonkey, a Palo Alto based company. About 15 of SurveyMonkey’s 300 U.S. employees are on H-1B visas.
While limited, Obama’s changes to immigration policy, such as the provision to let more spouses work, will be meaningful to some tech workers and their families.
Gayathri Kumar, 29, moved from India to Phoenix, Arizona, where her husband does R&D work at a semiconductor company, a year ago. She has a masters degree in communications and wants to work in television, but Kumar spends much of her day at home, chatting with friends over social media.
“I really want to work. I came here with a passion to work, not to sit at home,” Kumar said. “I’m bored, I’m becoming depressed.”
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