Immigration Reform 2013: Why Silicon Valley Got It Wrong


Lost in the media’s coverage of Apple’s WWDC showcase last week was a little detail, briefly mentioned. It’s not too important to technology, and relatively unexciting compared to the company’s other updates, but it carries with it extensive political and economic implications. While announcing its upcoming super-charged Mac Pro, a company spokesperson briefly zoomed in on the tiny signature that will soon be engraved onto the top of each machine: 

“Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in USA.”

The company, fresh off the highly publicized allegations that they spent 2007 through 2012 avoiding billions in taxes, is attempting to re-define its relationship with the country, and with labor. Silicon Valley giants are a new breed of business, selling products that are nearly impossible to accurately tax, are hell on patent code, and are becoming increasingly ambiguous (iTunes sells digital copies of songs; LinkedIn sells professional connections; Facebook sells you). 

They are redefining tomorrow’s economy, just as the Senate debates tomorrow’s workforce, and unsurprisingly … Silicon Valley wants in. They have descended upon Washington this week, eager to have a say in the much-hyped immigration bill that heads to the Senate floor following an overwhelming 82-15 procedural vote. Lobbyists from California have been bombarding lawmakers with calls, visits, letters and tweets. They have gone “full court press,” according to one official, ensuring they have a say in what could be one of the most comprehensive bi-partisan bills in years.

Engine Advocacy, a firm dedicated to re-imagining visa laws for entrepreneurs, has launched an online petition at The Partnership for a New American Economy, backed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Rupert Murdoch, and others, is a conglomerate of mayors and business leaders committed to immigration reform. And perhaps most notably is Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s, which boasts former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, Dropbox founder and CEO Drew Houston, and Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, as supporters.

In a bill that looks more and more likely to pass, business leaders are now fighting hard for three key provisions: One is to make it easier for students who get degrees in math, science or engineering at American Universities to gain permanent residency. Another is to make it easier for entrepreneurs to get visas. And perhaps most critical — and most controversial — is to expand the way temporary contract workers can be brought into the country under H-1B visas, and raising the minimum wages they could be paid. This has led to crucial debate between American labor groups and human resource managers from California — labor groups argue that companies should be making an effort to hire Americans first, and advocate building in such a provision into the bill. Tech companies, meanwhile, say that pickings for top talent are so slim and competitive, companies often end up poaching employees from right underneath each other.

If all this interest from the West Coast’s most influential doesn’t concern you, it probably should. Washington and Silicon Valley make an immensely powerful, if cantankerous, duo — a troubled relationship that was put on full display last week in the NSA’s leaked PRISM documents. And it doesn’t exactly take the mind of a Googler to question the math going on here. We have a weak economy packed with millions of unemployed workers, and yet high intellect employers argue that they can barely get their hands on enough talent to support their businesses. The highly skilled and highly educated are in short supply; we can’t seem produce them in American schools, so the Valley has started looking elsewhere.

Zuckerberg, in an op-ed for the Washington Post introducing, writes: “The economy of last century was primarily based on natural resources, industrial machines and manual labor. Many of these resources were zero-sum and controlled by companies. If someone had an oil field, then you did not … Today’s economy is different. It is based primarily on knowledge and ideas — resources that are renewable and valuable to everyone.”

Except that doesn’t actually help everyone, or at least, not evenly so. The economy of last century built a thriving middle class on relatively low-skill, low-intellect, well-compensated jobs. The economy of tomorrow, it seems, is being crafted by a fairly small subset of extraordinarily-intelligent people. A Zuckerbergian immigration policy is fantastic for the brilliant foreigner who can now start an American business, or the gifted immigrant who will no longer be deported after she gets her degree. But it does little for those who need most, regardless of where they were born. The struggling family in Montana will still struggle; the single mother in Mexico still won't get in. 

An immigration policy built for the brightest, in the interest of the powerful, fundamentally misses the point of immigration reform.

The most coveted employees are the ones who make products that are technically complex — stuff born inside the expansive brains of Stanford grads, not forged in factories, not manufactured, not made by hand, not understandable by deconstruction. 

To its credit, does note the importance of educational reform, with a renewed focus on math, science, and engineering. But for the millions of unemployed Americans watching lobbyists fight for a bigger workforce, the message is pretty clear. Silicon Valley and Washington are plowing ahead — and rightly so — towards an economy that looks different from yesterday’s. And though American manufacturing may be creeping back, it’s unlikely we will ever again see a middle class that looks like the one in which our grandparents thrived. But if tomorrow’s economy will be in the business of producing knowledge, tomorrow’s middle class must be brilliant. And our schools have to be better

So that we might create an environment of the best and the brightest, from home and abroad — one capable of designing, and assembling, here in the USA.