Mark Zuckerberg Supports a Very Specific Kind of Immigration Reform

Led by Facebook's Zuckerberg, a number of Silicon Valley executives today announced an initiative to facilitate immigration reform. Or, more likely, to ensure that reform includes the sorts of changes the tech industry wants to see.

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Led by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, a number of Silicon Valley executives today announced a new initiative to facilitate immigration reform. Or, more likely, to ensure that immigration reform includes the sorts of changes the tech industry wants to see.

The group — named, apparently — includes founders from Facebook, LinkedIn, Dropbox, and a few venture capital firms and is up front about supporting immigration reform  first and foremost because it helps the tech industry. Nothing unusual about that. Lots of industry associations do that. As their About Us statement reads, its purpose is "to promote policies to keep the United States and its citizens competitive in a global economy—including comprehensive immigration reform and education reform."

For years, tech companies have been pushing for an expansion of the number of H-1B visas available for immigrants. Here's an article from 2006 which outlines a tech group's renewed lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, chosen mostly because it was the first on the long list of similar articles that come up in Google. The visa itself allows American companies to temporarily employ non-citizens in specialized positions — like high-skill positions in technology manufacturing and information services companies — companies like Facebook and Dropbox and the V.C.-funded startups.

The debut of came in the form of a Mark Zuckerberg opinion piece that ran in The Washington Post. In it, Zuckerberg describes working with a group of kids at a middle school in Silicon Valley, learning that one didn't plan to attend college because his family immigrated illegally from Mexico. "These students are smart and hardworking," he writes, "and they should be part of our future."

He then writes:

To lead the world in this new economy, we need the most talented and hardest-working people. We need to train and attract the best.

Given all this, why do we kick out the more than 40 percent of math and science graduate students who are not U.S. citizens after educating them? Why do we offer so few H-1B visas for talented specialists that the supply runs out within days of becoming available each year, even though we know each of these jobs will create two or three more American jobs in return?

And that's almost certainly the real point. Yes, Zuckerberg's article does mention immigration reforms that don't necessarily apply to H-1B visa recipients: better border security, a path to citizenship, higher standards in schools, etc. But Zuckerberg's push seems about making sure his industry's concerns get addressed by D.C.'s sudden enthusiasm for immigration reform. He need not worry too much that they'll be considered (the policy components mentioned above are already mostly in existing compromises) but there are rumors that they are on the bubble in a Senate compromise package.

In Silicon Valley itself, where the tech industry's economic gains have not been shared equally, those two types of immigrants — specialized H-1B via-holders and undocumented workers — live very different lives. Louise Auerhahn of Working Partnerships USA, a Silicon Valley-based think tank (for which I used to work), outlined how employment differs for those two groups.

Noncitizen immigrants in the Valley are loosely distributed into the following employment sectors:

Those large blue and yellow slices of the pie reflect the divide above: H-1B visa-holders are heavily represented in what Auerhahn calls the "computer, engineering, business, finance, science or managerial occupations." The yellow slice is the service sector. That differentiation is even more stark when you consider the countries of origin for each group. Breaking employment into three sectors — professional, service, and production — Auerhahn indicated the percentage of each which was held by noncitizens of a particular origin.

Or, organized by sector:

As you might expect, that differentiation has a significant affect on income. (The data for Africa and North America below have a high margin-of-error, given the small sample size.)

The technology industry's relationship with the immigrants that work on lower floors in their office buildings has not always been as friendly as with H-1B professionals. During the tail-end of the dot-com boom, the "Justice for Janitors" campaign from the Service Employees International Union focused on improving salaries and benefits for janitors at tech companies, leading to a number of strikes and protests. In 2008, janitors struck Cisco, Yahoo, and Oracle for two weeks. Zuckerberg's essay may be predicated on the children of those workers, but if immigration reform passes without increasing the number of H-1B visas, it's unlikely his group would consider it much of a success.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.