From Damien Patton’s perspective, Congress’ attitude toward passing comprehensive immigration reform resembles a big corporate problem. That is, all-day meetings that lead to no decisions.
As founder and CEO of Banjo, a 2-year-old mobile app that provides real-time social network data from around the world, Patton, a 40-year-old who splits his time between Silicon Valley and Las Vegas, knows a thing or two about companies and meetings. He also knows about the importance of making decisions, especially the right ones.
Despite President Barack Obama's willingness to work with House Republicans to achieve a comprehensive solution to the immigration overhaul, the GOP decided to table all 2013 bills. It’s a decision that frustrates Patton and others in the business community, especially the technology industry, who stand to gain when the system is streamlined. Their frustration isn’t entirely directed only at lawmakers. Staunch advocates of citizenship, they say, are also holding up progress, and the delay stifles America’s innovation and could possibly allow other countries to gain momentum in the long term.
“Really what you’re doing is you are holding the American people, technology, innovation and Silicon Valley hostage to get your way on the 11 million [undocumented immigrants],” Patton said. “That’s the bottom line on what it is.”
Those may sound like strong words, but Patton is a proponent of immigration reform and one who is hoping for a breakthrough. He just doesn’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good, and says a breakthrough would likely come when the rhetoric gets changed to show that inaction gets nothing done, but send all the players involved into a circle.
“Momentum is hard to stop,” he added. “Even if we decide to put this off for five years, it gives a lot of other countries momentum. And when they have momentum, even if we change our ways, it's not like you wave a magic wand and then things are beautiful. It requires tremendous amount to rebuild and get things moving again at a faster pace. Why should we give that momentum away? Bottom line is we need help. Helping us helps our economy.”
Patton is not alone in his thinking. An advocate himself, Reaz Jafri heads the immigration practice at the international commercial law firm Withers Bergman. He, too, thinks advocates are playing a role in the current impasse.
“I think it’s partially our fault that we want all of it now,” Jafri said. “And I think that it is absolutely a critical need to legalize people who are here. We should be willing to make certain concession to get people legalized.”
Don’t Let Perfect Be The Enemy Of The Good
Sitting in the House of Representatives chamber is a Senate-passed comprehensive immigration reform bill that would increase the cap for highly skilled visas that would benefit tech companies and others. Visas like the H1B allow companies to bring in tens of thousands of top-tier engineers to fill the gap. Limiting the pool to choose from, businesses argue, can harm Silicon Valley in the future.
Through FWD.us, Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other tech industry leaders have joined advocates in lobbying Congress to pass immigration reform before the end of the year. Among the bipartisan group's aims is to get more high-skilled visas so that qualified workers from overseas can be brought into the country to help create the next big thing.
While Facebook hasn't pointed the finger at anyone, a spokeswoman said the company appreciates the legislative efforts being made and hopes Congress is able to get it done. It too has concerns.
“The technology sector has been a tremendous engine of economic growth and job creation in America,” the spokeswoman said, “but we have to be able to hire the talent we need to remain innovative and competitive and that means fixing our broken immigration system.”
The immigration reform bill, says Jafri, wasn't perfect but “there was a lot of good in there.” The stalemate is “a significant, I think, and harmful effect on U.S. technology and industry.”
Jafri, who was born in Pakistan and came to the U.S. 40 years ago, said the effects of immigration reform are very industry specific. The stall, he said, will affect technology-based companies that have a hard time recruiting. “I think it will affect these smaller companies and the entrepreneurial startups much more so than existing ones because the existing ones still can draw on the U.S. workers.”
Pointing to his own clients, Jafri said, many have set up offices overseas in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, where it is friendlier to get visas and the talent pool is just as good.
“The unfortunate thing is there’s overwhelming agreement with all parties involved in the idea of immigration reform that we want to make it easier for American companies to attract and keep talent” he said. “But the issue is that politics gets tangled in it, and so the bill will have things that will turn off one or the other parties.”
When it comes to addressing the issue of citizenship, the road to reform becomes treacherous. Lawmakers on both sides try to give something to get something to advance the process, sometimes agreeing to “poison pill” legislation. Take for instance, earlier this year, when the Democratic-led Senate settled on a bipartisan “border surge” amendment to its comprehensive immigration reform bill. They agreed to 20,000 more border agents being placed on the ground, as well as other high-tech surveillance methods just to get the measure out of the upper chamber with large Republican support. Their aim was to send a message to House leaders.
But even then, activists argued about the human impact of a militarized border:: The National Foundation for American Policy found that immigrant deaths rose by 27 percent in 2012. Four hundred and seventy-seven immigrants died in 2012, which the nonprofit stated is the second-highest figure recorded since 1998. There were 492 deaths in 2005, its report stated.
Blame John Boehner
Vocal advocates like America's Voice say the only parties to blame for the gridlock on immigration is House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Republicans. They refuse to give the GOP a pass to tackle other parts of reform, forsaking the undocumented population, when proponents are only hearing rhetoric that something will be done to provide legal status but are yet to see its manifestation.
“We are not saying our piece has to be the only piece,” said Lynn Tramonte deputy director of America's Voice. “It's quite obvious who's holding this up. It's the Republicans in the House.”
Tramonte believes the 11 million undocumented people here are at the center of the issue, and without lawmakers addressing that, then they aren't truly reforming the system.
“If Congress only passes visas for educated immigrants, the business leaders would be happy,” she said in a telephone interview Friday afternoon. She said the rest of the country would be frustrated. Tramonte also isn't buying the idea that time has already run out for this year. “It's not time. It's political will. They've got a lot of work to do so they better get started.”
Reform In Stages May Pass
Still, Patton and Jafri understand politics is complicating the issue. But they do hold firm that passing reform in stages would work.
“My sense is that it would work if they look at it as something that they need to solve rather than an ideological battle,” Jafri said. “Then nothing gets done.”
And Patton said the restructuring of the immigration system -- at least for those in the tech industry -- isn't about their bottom line. Rather, it's about continuing innovation and ensuring that Google and Facebook don't end up offering big incentives and pay packages that lure star talent away from smaller companies, creating a vacuum that forces the Banjos of the world to close shop.
“The smaller companies are where the innovation comes from,” Patton said. “Companies like ourselves are innovating the future and when the bigger companies pull away the resources because they are put in the position that they are with the stalemate, it really affects us.”
Tech leaders, Patton says, will have to make their voices louder to let lawmakers know that passing immigration reform isn't about their bottom lines but staying competitive.
“At the end of the day, do you really believe the founders of Google and Mark Zuckerberg created their invention and their excitement in that startup was a bottom line?” Patton asked. “They didn't even understand that they would ever make money. This I can promise you. Entrepreneurs, who are more starting off in technology, we are not thinking about a bottom line. We're thinking about can we build cool [stuff] that people will love.”
(Note: Photo by Shutterstock.com.)