Deliberation Could Fix Tech’s Immigration Problem

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2014 did not bring the immigration reforms the tech lobby pushed for.

Hopes of reform that would benefit high-skilled workers were initially dashed when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives blocked the Senate immigration bill. Silicon Valley was again disappointed when President Obama announced he would take sweeping executive actions to implement immigration reform. Although Obama’s plans should protect up to 5 million immigrants from deportation, critics say they did not go far enough in expanding green cards and skilled worker visas.

As a charged debate continued in Washington and titans such as Mark Zuckerberg injected millions into lobbying efforts, TechCrunch partnered with startup ReframeIt in an effort to understand where the technology community stands on immigration. With the support of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and a grant from the Knight Foundation, ReframeIt conducted deliberative polling on a sample of the tech community drawn from TechCrunch readers.

Our results: Once informed, readers were much more open to immigrants and their interests, and conversely opposed to tightening restrictions.

Although the polled participants in general took a more liberal approach to immigration following the briefing, their views did not fall strictly on party lines on specific issues, such as H-1B visas and green cards.

Deliberative polling involved gathering a sample of TechCrunch readers who read a briefing document about immigration policies and then participated in a day-long discussion with a panel of experts. The document was prepared by a briefing committee representing a range of views on immigration policy, and then opened to comment and revision from TechCrunch readers. Ten experts participated in the plenary sessions with the participants, including James Alexander, Ron Hira, Lisa Johnson-Firth, Norm Matloff and Atul Singh.

The goal of the project was to see how discussing immigration with peers and experts might impact our readers’ views on these issues. From our small sample of readers, we believe we can gain a quantitative understanding of how the larger tech community’s views might change if they dedicated time to fully understanding facts about immigration.

H-1B Visas

For the tech lobby, Obama’s immigration plan fell short when it came to H-1B visas — temporary visas for high-skilled workers. In order to raise the cap on these kinds of visas, the administration said it needed support from Congress. The yearly limit remains at 65,000, with an extra 20,000 for immigrants with advanced degrees from American schools.

The White House said President Obama’s actions made it slightly easier for immigrants with H-1B visas to change jobs, and also gave certain spouses employment authorization. In his speech, Obama acknowledged the push for high-skilled immigration visas.

“I will make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders have proposed,” he said.

TechCrunch readers increasingly supported H-1B visas after learning more about them.

Prior to the deliberation session with ReframeIt’s experts, only 50 percent of readers surveyed supported a limit of H-1B visas per company as a percentage of its US-based workforce. After, the number rose to 73 percent.

I will make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders have proposed.
— President Barack Obama

 

Respondents also increasingly supported tying salaries for H-1B workers to local median wage for their field. This matters as some critics oppose increasing the number of H-1B visas due to fears that American companies will elect to import foreign talent, and then underpay it compared to normal market rates at home.

This would provide corporations with an input discount, at the cost of increased unemployment among current citizens. Tying wages to local medians would, at least in theory, dampen that concern.

Green Cards

Obama Immigration Speech

Tech companies were also disappointed by a lack of action in 2014 to correct the years-long backlog of green cards.

After deliberation, the percentage of TechCrunch readers supporting the elimination of the backlog increased from 50 to 68 percent. Opposition to elimination fell 15 percent.

In addition, support for doubling the number of green cards issued annually rose from 48 to 65 percent.

DREAMers

The president’s executive action expanded relief for so-called DREAMers, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. Per the president’s actions, individuals who were brought to the United States before 2010 can apply for relief from deportation, no matter how old they are today.

Participants in our study strongly favored speeding up these immigrants’ paths to work authorization. Prior to deliberation, 61 percent supported such a change, and after 81 percent did.

Overall

ReframeIt found that before deliberation, 37 percent of readers surveyed felt that immigration threatened the American way of life. After our study, only 20 percent of participants felt this way.

From immigration to surveillance reform, it’s clear Silicon Valley has yet to hack The Hill. With the deliberation experiment with ReframeIt, we’ve learned that deliberation and the opportunity to learn about an issue and ask questions has a quantitative impact on members of the technology community’s immigration views.

Although it may be counterintuitive to the pace at which the tech community is known for “disrupting” ideas, our study shows changes in political positions take time and discussion.

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