Silicon Valley in immigration reform call

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers an address on January 29 about immigration reform, a highly contentious issue.

Story highlights

  • Silicon Valley coalition to launch campaign for comprehensive immigration reform
  • Campaign for lawmakers to back bill to make it easier for tech entrepreneurs to hire engineers
  • Campaign will culminate in mid-April, when bill expected to be going through U.S. Congress

A coalition of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and social media experts will on Monday launch a campaign for comprehensive immigration reform, which will culminate in a "virtual march" on Washington in April.

The "March for Innovation" is aimed at convincing lawmakers to back a bill that would make it easier for entrepreneurs to hire the engineers they need to develop tech companies.

"Our immigration laws are so inefficient," says Prerna Gupta, a co-founder of Khush, a start-up developing intelligent music apps, and the daughter of Indian immigrants.

"Our country was built off the backs of immigrants and I've seen first-hand the impact that educated immigrants can have. So as an employer, it's extremely frustrating not to be able to hire the educated engineers we need," she said.

When Khush was getting started in 2009, they could not afford the legal fees required to get an H-1B high-skilled visa for one of the co-founders, a Chinese engineer who wrote the code for the app.

Instead, someone else had to spend months learning the code. "It really slowed us down," Ms Gupta said.

She is one of a group that includes Steve Case, a co-founder of AOL; Ron Conway, a Silicon Valley angel investor; and Brad Feld, the tech investor and entrepreneur; as well as Joe Green from Causes, the online advocacy application within Facebook; and Joe Trippi, Democrat Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign manager.

They are being co-ordinated by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a bipartisan group of mayors and business leaders headed by New York's Michael Bloomberg.

They are launching the March for Innovation on Monday to start building momentum for comprehensive immigration reform, which President Barack Obama has put at the top of his legislative agenda.

The march will culminate in mid-April, when an immigration reform bill is expected to be going through Congress, with its backers anticipating that hundreds of thousands of people will take to Twitter and Facebook, as well as other sites, to urge lawmakers to back reform.

Reform would involve creating a pathway to citizenship for the US's estimated 11m unauthorised immigrants, as well as improving border security and overhauling the system under which people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees can apply for high-skill visas.

Mr Obama and Mitt Romney, his Republican rival for the presidency last year, as well as business leaders, have all identified the high-skill visa regime as something that should be overhauled to help the economy grow.

While the issue has broad bipartisan support, it could be dragged down by political fighting over the other, more contentious planks of comprehensive immigration reform.

"We're often debating the wrong thing," said John Feinblatt, chairman of the Partnership for a New Economy. "We should be debating how immigration will help us jump-start the economy and how the next great idea not only creates jobs in the tech sector but in housing or hospitality too."

The United States issues only 7% of its visas based on its economic needs, Feinblatt said, compared to 25% for Canada and 58% for the UK.

Mike Maples, a tech venture capitalist who is backing the campaign, says that the issue is not just a political or business issue, but a moral one.

"This country was founded on a promise that people would make enormous sacrifices to come here and build the pie and make it bigger for everyone," he said. "It's heartbreaking now to see how we are turning people away. The tech industry is all about building the pie, and we need the smartest people in the world to do that."

Tech companies had some political success last year when they protested against the Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa).

The legislation was backed by the publishing and entertainment industries and would have held liable the sites that hosted or linked to pirated content. But a strong backlash from the Internet industry -- Wikipedia blacked out, while Google and Reddit displayed protests -- caused lawmakers to shelve the bill.