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Tech firms take lead in lobbying on immigration

Eric Lipton and Somini Sengupta (via NYT/ AFR) | May 6, 2013
The television advertisement that hit the air waves in Florida last month featured the Republican Party's rising star, Senator Marco Rubio, boasting about his get tough plan for border security.

The bill has a good chance of winning passage in the Senate. The hardest sell will come in the House, where many conservative Republicans see the deal as too generous to immigrants who came to this nation illegally.

Rob Jesmer, a former top Republican Senate strategist who helps run the new Zuckerberg-backed non-profit group that sponsored the Rubio ad, insisted that his organisation's push is based on the personal convictions of the executives who donated to the cause and who believe immigration laws need to be changed. Those convictions just happen to line up with what their corporations are lobbying for as well, he said.

"It will give a lot of people who are educated in this country who are already here a chance to remain in the United States," Jesmer said, "and encourage entrepreneurs from all over the world to come to the United States and create jobs."

The profound transition under way inside Silicon Valley companies is illustrated by their lobbying disclosure reports filed in Congress. Facebook's lobbying budget swelled from $US351,000 in 2010 to $US2.45 million in the first three months of this year, while Google spent a record $US18 million last year.

That boom in spending translates into hiring of top talent in the art of Washington deal-making. These companies have hired people like Joel D Kaplan, a one-time deputy chief of staff in the Bush administration who now works for Facebook; Susan Molinari, a former House Republican from New York who is now a Google lobbyist; and outside lobbyists like Steven Elmendorf, a former chief of staff to Richard A Gephardt, a former House majority leader who works for Facebook.



The immigration fight, which has unified technology companies perhaps more than any other issue, has brought the lobbying effort to new heights. The industry sees it as a fix to a stubborn problem: job vacancies, particularly for engineers.

"We are not able to fill all the jobs that we are creating," Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, told the Senate Judiciary Committee late last month.

Chief executives met with President Barack Obama to discuss immigration. Venture capitalists testified in Congress. Their lobbyists roamed the Senate corridors to make sure their appeals were considered in the closed-door negotiations among the Gang of Eight, which included Rubio and Senator Charles E Schumer, who have been particularly receptive.

In the many phone calls and hallway asides on Capitol Hill this year, those lobbyists realised that they had to give a little to get a lot of what they wanted. At the top of their wish list was an expansion of a temporary visa program called the H-1B, which allows companies to hire foreigners for jobs in the United States. There are a limited number of H-1Bs available each year, and fierce competition for them.


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