Could tech be the difference maker for immigration reform?

Robert Hoffman Contributor
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“This time it’s going to be different.”

Have you heard that before? The Chicago Cubs faithful know what I am talking about. As did “Star Wars” fans after Episode One, as well as Zsa Zsa Gabor’s ex-husbands.

And then there are those in the tech industry who for years have advocated for Congress to pass immigration reform. On Monday, eight Senators – four Republicans and four Democrats – affixed their names to a broad set of immigration reform principles that singled out the need for high-skilled innovation.

On Tuesday, ten Senators – five Democrats and five Republicans – introduced the Immigration Innovation Act or “I –Squared.” The bill would finally overhaul a broken US immigration system and make it work with an increasingly knowledge-focused economy that is suffering from a math and science skills gap that risks getting even wider in the years ahead.

One of the common refrains heard during the rollout of both ambitious proposals won’t surprise you:

“This time it’s going to be different.”

For the tech industry, such optimistic words would normally be nails on a chalkboard. We’ve heard it before.  Immigration reform’s been tech’s Groundhog Day; the football in Lucy Van Pelt’s hands; or the rabbit at the dog track.

Over the past seven years, Congress tried and failed numerous times to fix our nation’s immigration system – sometimes comprehensively, and other times through rifle shot bills. In 2006, the Senate passed immigration reform that included key improvements in skilled temporary (H-1B) and permanent resident visa (green cards) programs, but the bill was DOA in the House. In 2007, the Senate could not get a bipartisan bill to a final vote.  And in 2009-10, a bipartisan blueprint never even got introduced as a bill.

For the past two years, Congress sought to pass targeted reforms to repeal per country limits on employer-sponsored green cards, and to carve out green cards for US Master’s and PhD graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Despite House approval of these reforms with strong bipartisan votes, the bills languished in the Senate.

So, given that background, what’s my prognosis for immigration reform in the 113th Congress? Strange enough, this time could be different, and the increasing need for skilled immigration reform could be the difference.  Here’s why:

The US immigration system is not just broken – it’s harming the US economy. For the high-skilled community, the current system has pushed jobs and future entrepreneurs to countries ranging from Canada to Chile. Tens of thousands of high skilled jobs go unfilled in this country, costing our country tens of millions of dollars in lost economic activity. By 2020, our economy will be creating 120,000 computing jobs each year, but our higher education system awards only 40,000 relevant bachelor’s degrees.

At the same time, the supply of employer-sponsored green cards has remained the same since 1990, when the US economy was one-third the size it is today and far less dependent on a skilled workforce. As a result, tens of thousands of talented foreign-born individuals have been working in this country on temporary visas for years, and some close to a decade. They are stuck in a green card backlog that is stifling their professional development as entrepreneurs and job-creators.

Tech jobs are needed, and not just for tech companies. A report released in 2011 by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University found that math and science jobs are needed in advanced manufacturing, mining and utilities, and transportation. A new advocacy coalition focused on building a more robust STEM talent pool – inSPIRE STEM USA – has Caterpillar and the National Association of Manufacturers listed as members. As more and more industries become dependent on STEM professionals to remain competitive and innovative, the louder the call for skilled immigration reform.

The literature and thought leadership documenting our failed immigration system has helped raise awareness with policymakers. Organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce, the Partnership for a New American Economy, the Information Technology Industry Council, and the National Foundation for American Policy have released compelling studies on how immigration policy is increasingly pushing the US further off the perch of global innovation leadership.

We’ve even seen more extensive analyses hit the bookshelves. Entrepreneur and educator Vivek Wadhwa has highlighted how current immigration policies have fueled a reverse brain drain of foreign-born, US-educated professionals. And Rob Atkinson, and Robert Litan each have written about how skilled immigration reform can restore US innovative leadership and fuel the creation of innovative new industries and businesses.

I-Squared is an early indicator of the importance of skilled immigration reform. The ten bipartisan sponsors of I-Squared get it: fixing our skilled immigration system will help revitalize the US economy and US innovation. It also suggests that skilled immigration reform is likely to be essential to the broader immigration reform effort.

So, the world as we know it is much different than in 2006: We have a greater awareness of how our immigration system is broken and failing our economy; a greater understanding of the benefits to our nation’s economic and security interests if Congress gets reform done right; and a greater demonstration of bipartisan collaboration and commitment from the President and leading members of Congress at the initial stages of the legislative process.   All of that and more is why tech could very well be the difference-maker in immigration reform.

Robert Hoffman is Senior Vice President of Government Relations at the Information Technology Industry Council. Over a 25-year period, Robert has been a public policy advisor for four US Senators, the Governor of California, and two Fortune 500 enterprises.