The Cable

Tech Firms Could Be Quiet Winners in Obama’s Immigration Overhaul

After years of tension over mass data collection and NSA surveillance, President Barack Obama’s immigration reform announcement Thursday evening may improve the White House’s tattered relationship with Silicon Valley. According to a report in the Washington Post, Obama will use an executive order to expand the little-known Optional Practical Training program, which has allowed a ...

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After years of tension over mass data collection and NSA surveillance, President Barack Obama’s immigration reform announcement Thursday evening may improve the White House’s tattered relationship with Silicon Valley.

According to a report in the Washington Post, Obama will use an executive order to expand the little-known Optional Practical Training program, which has allowed a large number of foreign students studying in the United States to take jobs in the tech industry while in school and after graduation. Industry heavyweights like Google and Microsoft have long been pushing Washington to allow more students who work in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics industries to qualify for the program and to enable them to remain in the United States longer than the current maximum of 29 months.

The fate of the larger and better-known H-1B visa program, which permits foreign workers to temporarily live and work in the country, remains unknown. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), a lawmaker with close ties to Silicon Valley who was briefed on the president’s plans at a dinner Wednesday night, told the Huffington Post that Obama’s legal team advised him not to expand visas for high-tech workers.

"There were some programs he could not do because there was not statutory authority," Chu said. "I was disappointed."

Ahead of Obama’s speech, Republicans were split on how to respond.

House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell have both said they don’t want a repeat of the 2013 shutdown to defund Obamacare. Others, including Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Al.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tx.), have vowed to fight the order. Another Republican proposal would defund immigration reforms that Obama is set to announce Thursday.

So far, tech groups have remained silent on Obama’s planned announcement. Requests for comment from numerous industry groups were not returned. However, past efforts by these groups to get Congress to move on immigration reform make clear that any plan that includes additional visas for high-tech workers would be welcomed by the tech community.

It would also give Silicon Valley and the White House an excuse to deal with each other on friendlier terms, which would be politically important ahead of the 2016 elections because of the tech industry’s generous financial support for Democratic candidates.

Since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began revealing secrets about the government’s widespread electronic surveillance efforts 18 months ago, tech firms have complained about intrusions into their systems. The latest dustup occurred in September, when Apple announced would not unlock iPhone 6 cell phones for law enforcement under any circumstances.

"On devices running iOS 8, your personal data such as photos, messages (including attachments), email, contacts, call history, iTunes content, notes, and reminders is placed under the protection of your passcode," the company stated Sept. 17. "Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data. So it’s not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8."

FBI Director James Comey responded a week later, saying that the government might need to access protected information in the event of a terrorist attack.

"There will come a day — well it comes every day in this business — when it will matter a great, great deal to the lives of people of all kinds that we be able to with judicial authorization gain access to a kidnapper’s or a terrorist or a criminal’s device," Comey said. "I just want to make sure we have a good conversation in this country before that day comes. I’d hate to have people look at me and say, ‘Well how come you can’t save this kid,’ ‘how come you can’t do this thing.’"

Tech companies have built powerful lobbying arms in Washington, in part, to push for immigration reform. FWD.us, the lobbying group founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, among other tech giants, was created specifically to lobby Congress for immigration reform. Zuckerberg’s group has pushed so much for reform that Fox News White House correspondent Wendell Goler asked White House press secretary Josh Earnest if Obama announced his speech on the social media platform as a thank-you to its founder.

Two other prominent tech industry groups, the Internet Association, a trade group for companies like Google and Amazon, and TechNet, founded by Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr, are also strong backers of immigration reform that allows more high-tech workers into the United States. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, these groups spent $140 million lobbying Congress in 2013.

Individual members of the tech community have also given generously to politicians. According to a review of 2014 contributions by the National Journal, $23.6 million was donated by the sector this past election cycle, with nearly half of it going to Democrats.

Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt donated $527,214 to political causes, including $250,000 to the Democratic Senate Majority PAC. Peter Thiel, cofounder of PayPal, gave $150,000 to Lawrence Lessig’s Mayday PAC, and in the past has given money in support of Republican causes, including $2 million to the conservative Club for Growth Action fund in 2012.

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