Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recently spoke out publicly in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, urging changes to our system that would support the growth of the tech industry and allow the undocumented to pursue their dreams1. Zuckerberg made his comments before the screening of “Documented,” a film by Jose Antonio Vargas, a high profile undocumented immigrant and journalist.
This came just a few months after the founding of Zuckerberg’s new advocacy organization, FWD.us, which focuses promoting “policies that will lead to a more advanced workforce and stronger knowledge economy in the U.S.”2 FWD.us is currently honed in on immigration reform. The group boasts an impressive list of founders and major contributors including industry leaders, entrepreneurs and activists like Bill Gates, Marisa Mayer and more.
It is no surprise Zuckerberg and others in the tech industry want to see a major overhaul of our country’s immigration system. U.S. tech companies rely heavily on skilled foreign workers, many educated in the U.S., to sustain and grow their businesses. Indeed, FWD.us points out that 33% of engineers, 57% of PhDs working in engineering, 27% of mathematicians, statisticians and computer scientists and 50% of PhDs working in math and computer science in the U.S. are immigrants.
This year’s shortage of H-1B visas for workers in “specialty occupations” requiring a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent—the visa generally used to keep these highly skilled engineers and analysts in the United States—underscores the difficulties facing the tech industry in staffing their companies in the United States. Senate Bill 744, the bill that passed the Senate in June but is stalled in the House, would increase the base number of H-1B visas from 65,000 to 110,000 annually with the ability to fluctuate to 180,000 visas depending on employer demand and unemployment data. The bill contains new exemptions that would provide additional H-1Bs that are not subject to the limit. The improved visa availability is coupled with new restrictions and requirements meant to prevent companies from over-relying on the H-1B program and to prevent the displacement of U.S. workers. The bill acknowledges the economy’s need for highly skilled workers, especially in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (the “STEM” fields), placing those with advanced degrees in STEM fields at the top level of priority for immigrant visas and providing other benefits.
The surprise is not that Zuckerberg wants immigration reform, it’s that he’s also attempting, very publicly, to highlight the undocumented individual’s plight and the parallel need to reform the rest of the immigration system. It is “surprising” in that providing a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented has generally been played against interests. For example, a path to citizenship for undocumented individuals in S.744 is contingent on meeting certain security goals at the border. The House of Representatives has said it plans to draft its own immigration reform provisions in a piecemeal fashion, and benefits for STEM graduates and H-1B workers to keep big business happy is likely to be higher on its list of priorities.
Yet, both highly skilled foreign workers and other immigrants are major drivers of our economy. The American Immigration Council does a nice job of assessing the economic impact of immigrants in each state.3 For example, the AIC reports that in 2010, new immigrant business owners contributed $34.3 billion to California’s economy.
There are also millions of promising immigrants who would be able to contribute to the high tech industry in skilled positions, our military and otherwise if they were able to work legally. Some of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients have already been able to begun contributing to the economy with work authorization. FWD.us tells stories of immigrants who have become major players in business and the U.S. economy, as well as immigrants who dream of the opportunity to have an impact.
So perhaps it’s not so surprising Zuckerberg and FWD.us’s many well-connected supporters see immigration reform as a positive prospect—and perhaps even an essential one—for business and the country as a whole.
1 Michelle Quinn, Mark Zuckerberg: Immigration stakes high for tech, undocumented immigrants, POLITICO Pro, http://www.politico.com/story/2013/08/mark-zuckerberg-immigration-95217.html (Aug. 5, 2013)