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5 technology initiatives and reforms IT wants in Washington

Kenneth Corbin | April 4, 2014
Leaders from Microsoft, Cisco and other tech players are pressing their agenda as they meet with the White House and Congress this week. Some initiatives have been years in the making -- and will take many more years to see through -- but other reforms may not be far off.

Leaders of the tech sector are in Washington this week for a series of high-level meetings with senior White House officials and members of Congress.

So what are they asking for? The tech industry is hardly monolithic, but certain matters of public policy that tend to draw broad support among IT firms. Between a morning meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and other White House officials and a series of afternoon visits on Capitol Hill, several tech leaders dropped by the Bipartisan Policy Center to share five message they bring to Washington.

1. Immigration Reform

It may be no coincidence that the day the tech executives made the rounds of official Washington also happened to mark the opening of the application process for H-1B visas, which allow highly skilled foreigners to remain in the country as guest workers. Many tech firms argue that the cap on those visas - currently set at 65,000 with an additional 20,000 for advanced degree holders - is insufficient.

"Unfortunately it's this old adage: 'Here today, gone tomorrow.' It's aptly applied to H-1Bs," says Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel and executive vice president.

Each year, the agency overseeing the H-1B program is inundated with applications for the visas. Last year, the application period ended after just four days when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received more than 120,000 applications, well exceeding the cap.

"We don't actually know yet what day they'll close it down in the next week, but it's a fair bet that the number of applications that have been filed today is probably greater than 85,000," Smith says.

Easing restrictions for skilled foreign workers is generally seen as one of the less controversial aspects of the broader immigration debate, though a number of prominent academics and many frustrated domestic IT workers challenge the notion of a worker shortage. Instead, they see in the push for H-1B visas a cynical ploy by tech firms to win access to cheap labor. In particular, critics note that the three biggest users of H-1B workers are offshoring companies: Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services and Cognizant.

The tech leaders lobbying for H-1B expansions, of course, counter that the shortage of skilled workers is quite real and lament a system where foreign students are trained in American colleges and universities, only to be sent back to their country of origin to find work and, presumably, compete against U.S. firms.

What's more, Cisco CEO John Chambers argues, skilled foreign workers bring a multiplier effect to the labor market, citing an industry figure that 40 percent of the high-tech startups in the country were founded by first-time citizens. "This is where I think we make a mistake as a country, thinking that jobs that come from outside our country take American jobs."


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