Five Things Techies Need To Know About Immigration Reform
Hello, Americans who work in the technology industry! Did you know comprehensive immigration reform is coming? This is a thing that is more important than the used game policy on the XBox. And you’re a good person who cares about the world, so let’s get you up to speed on this important issue so you can help immigrants who might otherwise be marginalized by bad policy.
Immigration reform is almost certainly going to pass. There’s a well-designed compromise bill for comprehensive immigration reform working its way through the Senate right now, and it gives Republicans enough border fencing and Democrats enough accommodation for today’s undocumented immigrants for both sides to get behind the bill. Now the fact that something will likely pass doesn’t tell us exactly what law we’re going to get, so that’s why we have to get educated about the law. Did you know that the contributions from new immigrants granted status under this bill is enough to make Social Security financially secure? Immigration reform impacts every part of society, so we should read up on it. The best overview of the current immigration reform bill being debated that I’ve seen is from the Immigration Policy Center. (If you find other guides and resources, please share them!)
The tech industry is an important player in this bill, but right now lawmakers are only listening to Facebook. I’ve had a chance to talk to people ranging from progressive senior members of this administration to conservative representatives in the House, and across the board they’ve characterized the advocacy they’re hearing from the technology industry as “those Facebook folks”. They’re talking about Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us PAC (which we’ve discussed before), which is extraordinary because the PAC is ostensibly not part of Facebook, includes senior executives from many other tech companies even including Bill Gates, and has completely overshadowed even efforts like Michael Bloomberg’s March for Innovation. That’s crazy! Bloomberg is one of the most powerful politicians in the country, has a net worth of more than double Zuckerberg’s, is lobbying on the same issue, has heavy hitters ranging from Mark Cuban to Cory Booker backing his effort, and doesn’t support scummy cynical ads like FWD.us, and he’s been outgunned by Zuckerberg’s spending. Do you all trust Facebook to represent your goals for immigration? Is it okay that only giant tech companies and not small scrappy startups are being represented? If not, then you gotta get involved.
Tech’s agenda can’t only be about H1Bs. We have to do better. Everybody in D.C. thinks the only thing people in the tech industry want from immigration reform is more H1Bs. Maybe that’s a great starting point, but given our wealth and power, we have to do more to help every other type of immigrant, all of whom are much more at risk for being ignored or underserved. We must find common cause between immigrants who are Python coders and immigrants who pick lettuce. There’s a narrative describing those who work at keyboards as “skilled” workers and those who work in hospitality or agriculture or construction as “unskilled”, a set of labels that are easily refuted if we try to swap workers between these contexts. W visas for seasonal workers, and DREAM citizenship for children who’ve grown up in the United States matter as much as H1Bs. Even amongst workers who come here on H1B visas, we have to make sure immigration law affords them more respect, dignity and power. H1B workers often end up in a modern equivalent of indentured servitude because they’re not able to switch jobs easily, are forced to accept lower salaries than their peers, frequently aren’t able to bring family members with them to the United States, and presently have no official protections extended to same-sex partners. Some of the issues around same-sex partners and being able to bring family members may be addressed in the current bills being considered, but they’re at risk if we don’t say loudly that these issues matter. We have to care about the lives and working conditions of coders brought in under the new immigration regime because the United States has a long, brutal history of bringing in immigrant classes to work for its biggest industries under inhumane, second-class conditions. We cannot afford to repeat those moral failings again.
We must talk about what we’re willing to give, not just what we want to get. The visa fees that tech companies are going to be paying to bring workers to the United States are likely going to be assigned, either in whole or in part, to supporting tech education for current American citizens. The truth is, it can cost the same to teach a retiree in Atlanta or a teenager in Topeka how to be a programmer as it costs to pay some high-end immigration lawyer to shepherd a candidate from across the Pacific. So we should talk about how the tech titans can help fund better public education, better career transition education, and smarter education policy so that poor Americans can have the same opportunities as people from the rest of the world.
Immigration reform is a huge opportunity for the tech industry to save tax dollars and create value. One of the most compelling parts of the immigration reform bill, from a technical perspective, is the registry system that’s being created for undocumented immigrants, called the Registered Provisional Immigrant system. The RPI platform will begin to systematize the ways these people can work and live in the United States, and it’s a huge opportunity for building businesses and capabilities for companies across the country. But first, we have to talk about how procurement for building RPI is going to happen. (Procurement is a huge reason why technology from government agencies is often so out of date or poorly-designed.) Instead of a single, costly, monolithic proprietary system for tracking RPI residents, we could envision a smart set of open protocols and platforms that would keep the DHS from repeating the technology mistakes that make the IRS so hard to interact with. The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s focus on design for things like credit cards is a good model, as is the vast amount of open health data being shared around the Department of Health and Human Services, which is already fueling lots of startups. Some government-defined indicators, like eligibility for school lunches, are already used as guidelines for both public- and private-sector services, and RPI status could be used the same way. Comcast makes a low-cost Internet access plan available to families that qualify for low-cost school lunches, even though broadband has no direct connection to nutrition. But open systems allow smart reuse of the platform, and it’s easy to imagine entire new businesses built around RPI as long as we make sure the tech is open enough to enable them. That means paying attention now and as the bill is implemented, because if we leave it to the current bunch of lawyers in Washington, D.C., this platform will be built by the same old expensive government contractors.
We The People
The most important thing we can remember is that those of us in the tech industry would not have most of the products and services we rely on if not for immigrants. More specifically, we wouldn’t have our jobs if not for having had good immigration policy. Major reforms to immigration law happen about once in a generation, and the biggest milestones in recent times came in 1965 and in 1986. It is no coincidence that those time periods also kicked off huge waves of innovation in software and hardware. To no small degree, the difference between “No Irish need apply” and Google having been cofounded by an immigrant is because we made good immigration policy changes in the 60s and 80s.
Whether your people came here in planes or in chains, everybody except Native Americans has an obligation to make sure future Americans can arrive with dignity and opportunity. Today’s immigrants can be treated better than our parents or grandparents were, and the underprivileged among our citizens today can be extended the same support we offer to talented immigrants. The tech industry is one of the greatest concentrations of wealth and power that’s ever existed in history. To be worthy of the privilege we’ve been extended, we must show respect to the past immigrants who made our success possible, by fighting for the next generations of immigrants not just as “workers” to be harvested, but as fellow Americans to be welcomed.