No Exceptions For Tech Industry: High Skilled Visas Now Tied To Comprehensive Reform

Powerful technology lobbies expected special treatment this week from Congress and got a tough lesson in rejection: there will be no more high-skilled work visas without comprehensive immigration reform. The probable failure of the STEMS Jobs Act, which would add 55,000 work visas for science-oriented immigrants, has become a casualty of war over the low-skilled immigrants dilemma.

Despite $14.7M in campaign donations from the Bay Area and a full-court press from the likes of Aol* founder, Steve Case, Silicon Valley heavy-weights could not get Congress to set aside their differences on comprehensive reform for a favor to engineer-starved tech firms. Coastal isolation in startup land has caused an unfounded exceptionalism that so long as Silicon Valley kept producing world-changing products, the government would leave the area alone. Influence, however, had the unintended side effect of forced interdependence, and now the tech lobby will have deal with the rest of the country’s issues before it can get more engineers.

Both Democratic and Republican leaders have communicated their unwavering support for the technology industry’s imminent need for more high-skilled immigrants. “We know that foreign nationals who are here learning at our colleges and universities in the STEM area, are individuals with very high potential to innovate and create help create jobs for our country,” House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (CrunchGov Grade: A), tells TechCrunch.

President Obama and his democratic colleagues, however, have vowed to stop the bill over a provision that would increase high-skilled visas by replacing the Diversity Immigrant Visa program, a lottery for immigrants from underrepresented areas, such as Africa. “I can’t support a bill that pits immigrant communities against each other. There’s no reason that giving a green card to one person should mean taking one away from someone else,” declared Rep. Zoe Lofgren (CrunchGov Grade: A), who has offered a competing bill that simply increases the STEM visas without touching the Diversity program.

There are deep-seated political and principled motivations for kicking the high-skilled immigration reform can down the road.

The Politics: Multiple Democratic offices on Capitol Hill tell me that they think the elimination of the Diversity Visa program is a poison pill, deviously planted by Republicans to make Democrats look anti-innovation. Republicans are desperately seeking the big money and programming talent that contributed to President Obama’s reelection. And, the overtures are working: the Consumer Electronics Agency (CEA) both applauded the House for passing the STEMS jobs act and admonished Obama for openly opposing it.

Republicans, on the hand, can wag their finger at Democrats for kowtowing to powerful Latino interests. Indeed, President Obama’s off-the-record remarks reveal why low-skilled immigration reform is so important

“Since this is off the record, I will just be very blunt. Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community,” he told the Iowa Des Moines register, in an interview that was later published.

The sad politics of the whole mess is that both groups can win favor with their respective interest groups without actually accomplishing anything.

The Principles: Not everyone in DC is an amoral, calculating partisan; there are legitimate principled differences, namely that Republicans want a meritocratic immigration system focused on the economy and Democrats favor one that increases diversity and opportunity for the world’s neediest.

“I’m having trouble understanding the real policy behind a lottery, a random lottery, versus wanting to make sure that America remains attractive to the world’s best and brightest,” explains Cantor. Under this premise, it’s irresponsible to keep the Diversity program and unnecessarily increase the number of immigrants. While cynics may say it’s a clever ploy to keep Latinos out of the country, the amended STEM Jobs Act does include a provision to help reunite separated families earlier–one of drawbacks of the current immigration system. But, those family members who come wouldn’t automatically get work visas when they enter, maintaining the philosophy of ‘economy-first’.

Democrats, on the other hand, see America’s moral strength in diversity. “Republicans are only willing to increase legal immigration for immigrants they want by eliminating legal immigration for immigrants they don’t want,” said Illinois, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (CrunchGov Grade: C).

High-skilled immigration reform necessarily gets embroiled in the larger debate. Piecemeal reform, then, was a fantasy. The technology industry’s influence on the rest of the country had consequences: more power wasn’t a one-sided gain, but a tieing of fates.

*Aol is TechCrunch’s parent company