Feb 12, 2013 · 7 minutes

The proposed immigration reforms being considered in Washington DC right now would seem to present a pretty straightforward opportunity for the tech industry and the startup community. As a bipartisan political window of opportunity opens, now is the time to argue for more visas for high-skilled immigrants and to push for a “startup visa” that would allow foreign entrepreneurs to start their businesses in the US. But just as the startup community begins to chant in unison for entrepreneur-friendly reform, there is a sense that the Valley might be getting played by the political actors in Washington.

The startup community’s aspirations for meaningful immigration reform is being compromised because of partisan politics and cunning gamesmanship in the capital, says Gina Cooper, a tech-political strategist and the founder and former executive director of Netroots Nation. To be able to effect political change at the federal level, Cooper says, tech industry advocates need to get savvy to the “politics of division.” In many cases, Cooper says, tech advocates don’t understand the dynamics at work in Washington.

Republicans have been able to create a wedge in the immigration debate by setting up the Democrats to look as if they are unsympathetic to the Valley, suggesting that the GOP would only agree to a visa allowing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) graduates to stay and work in the country if it came at the expense of the existing “diversity visa,” which allows 55,000 randomly selected applicants from countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, and Kenya, and from Eastern Europe. But many pro-reform advocates, and Democratic lawmakers, believe that a STEM visa should not be played off against the diversity visa, and that both are additive to the national economy.

If the “politics of division” theory is to be believed, yesterday provided a prime example of it in action. Immigration policy researcher and innovation academic Vivek Wadhwa published an open letter to Congressman Luis Gutierrez, accusing him of holding Silicon Valley hostage to Democratic obstinance over the conflict between the diversity visa and the STEM visa. “I would have voted for visas for 50,000 smart foreign students graduating with STEM degrees from US universities over bringing in 55,000 randomly selected high-school graduates from abroad,” Wadhwa wrote. “The STEM graduates would have created jobs and boosted our economy. The lottery winners will come to the US with high hopes, but will face certain unemployment and misery because of our weak economy.”

That view, however, doesn’t take into account the fact that it’s not just high-skilled immigrants that can benefit the US economy. “The reality,” says Cooper, “is that all across the spectrum, all across our economy, immigrants are a huge contributor.” Her contention appears to be backed by the data, even when applied to undocumented immigrants.

A story published on the New York Times website today points out that in states with more undocumented workers, skilled workers make more money and work more hours. Between 1990 and 2007, undocumented workers bumped up the pay for legal workers in complementary jobs by up to 10 percent, according to Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California, Davis. Meanwhile, a Brookings Institute report says that low-skilled immigrants have higher rates of employment and lower rates of household poverty than US-born citizens, even though they have lower individual earnings. And just as the Valley requires high-skilled engineers to fill positions at major tech companies and in startups, other sectors of the economy require the manpower of people willing to do jobs other Americans are unwilling to take on.

The US, says Cooper, has a long history of immigrants of all kinds being part of the machine that moves the country forward. Tech advocates should therefore not be distracted by the needless politicization of the “us” versus “them” approach. She says partisans and other political actors in Washington “know they’re inserting a political wedge [into the issue] and that wedge ends up bringing the conversation to some place that’s not productive. That’s not ennobling and it’s really not worthy of the American people.”

Meanwhile, tech advocates need to do a better job at building a political infrastructure that can effectively argue for legislative reform without being held sway to such divisive tactics. It’s not enough to tell Washington DC what to do and just sit back and expect it to happen. For instance, the “startup visa" – which would allow foreign entrepreneurs to start their businesses in the US if they had investment and would hire Americans – hasn't been included in the proposed immigration reform packages that have the greatest chances of becoming law, such as I-Squared or that put forward by the Gang of Eight senators. That’s in part because the tech industry has not been effective enough in making its voice heard in the corridors of power.

To win battles in Washington, it’s not enough to just advocate what is right for you or your specific community, Cooper says. You have to build coalitions and convince other Americans to agree with you. While other immigration reform groups and their opponents are organized at the district level to pressure lawmakers to enact legislation favorable to their interests, the startup community so far hasn’t built up the infrastructure required to enable that process. “We’re not making an argument at the level of a public mandate,” she says.

That lack is, however, understandable. Entrepreneurs and startup employees tend to be too busy running their companies to wade far into the weeds of political discourse, and while organizations like Engine Advocacy, PolitiHacks, and the Startup America Partnership are doing good work, they are still new on the scene and are relatively isolated forces.

Craig Montuori, founder and executive director of tech-political consultancy PolitiHacks, says that lawmakers in Washington have learned that Silicon Valley isn’t fully engaged in the legislative process. There was an initial eagerness to look out for startup interests in the immediate aftermath of the failed Stop Online Piracy Act and Protection IP Act (SOPA and PIPA), but since then Washington has lost a lot of their fear of the Valley’s political strength. Montuori notes that Peter Thiel was the only tech figure to contribute to a political campaign to challenge SOPA author Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, for his seat in the 2012 election.

According to the two political metrics that really matter to congressmen – votes and money – the Valley so far poses little threat. “We’re not going to cost anyone their seats,” says Montuori. “We’re going to make a lot of noise, but we’re not going to move a lot of votes.”

Part of the shortcoming can be attributed to a philosophical chasm between Silicon Valley and Washington DC. The two centers simply do not get each other, Montuori says. They work at different speeds and take different approaches to problem solving. “The two worlds are never going to spend a lot of time with each other, because they frustrate each other.”

However, he believes that if Silicon Valley can build a bridge to Washington, it can accomplish its legislative objectives. “Washington DC is looking for the interest and affection of Silicon Valley in an undistracted way that’s very rare,” he notes. “They want to be associated with our success and our economic growth and our job creation.”

To achieve that goal, Montuori believes that there needs to be coordinated effort on two fronts: from the ground-up (among entrepreneurs and startup employees), and from the top down, among venture capitalists and organizations like the National Venture Capitalist Association (NVCA).

Founders and early employees of startups need to find a way to interrupt their schedules in order to sit down with congressional staffers at the district level and make their voices heard. District staffers, Montuori says, are obliged to respond to feedback from constituents, and they are an effective means of elevating issues to congressmen. On the other hand, he suggests, the NVCA should fund a group that focuses on early-stage companies’ political needs, especially when it comes to helping them understand issues such as immigration and Obamacare. Large companies and small-business associations in California, for example, are engaging the state government in Sacramento to figure out exactly how Obamacare affects them.

When it comes down to it, the tech industry and the startup community are good at kvetching about policy and identifying areas in need of improvement, but they fall short when it comes to getting their ideas put into practice. Says Montuori: “We as a community focus sometimes too much on the policy and ignore the politics of implementation.”

[Illustration by Aleks Sennwald for Pandodaily]

Other stories in our series on immigration reform: