As some of the most visibly successful American companies, startups and larger tech outfits enjoy favored status in political discourse. Finding "the next Steve Jobs" is a common talking point (it's showed up in, among other places, the 2012 State of the Union Address), and Obama has consistently called for better STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education to allow the US to maintain its technological prowess. At the same time, internet companies are pushing their own causes: Google has become a major player in Washington over the past year, and the SOPA protests of 2012 set a model for online company-backed activism. Now, as a new immigration plan is being workshopped in the Senate, parts of the tech community are putting their weight behind reform.
"It's symbolic and represents the voice of technology and innovation."
Set for an unspecified date this spring, the Partnership for a New American Economy's "virtual march for immigration reform" is a more codified version of common online petition systems. Join it, and you'll be asked if you want to post tweets and Facebook messages or send emails — though at this point, it doesn't include common tools like a Representative- or Senator-finding system or even much information about what the "march" entails. Supporters are asked to help make sure that core issues — including visas for entrepreneurs — make it into a reform bill. And the event itself is backed by a list of people that includes former AOL co-founder Steve Case, Tumblr founder David Karp, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has pushed to make NYC a more startup-friendly city.
Organization director and Bloomberg policy advisor Jeremy Robbins says the event is meant to be "responsive to the way that we communicate in this day and age. It's something that more people can identify and care about... It's symbolic and represents the voice of technology and innovation." Having a purely online protest is a way to deal with Congressional timeline changes: "If the bill is moving faster or slower, we can adapt to that." Robbins says he's also looking getting participating members to advocate on their sites, as was done during the SOPA protests.
A supplement to more traditional lobbying, not a replacement
Effectively, though, the campaign is meant as an added visibility boost in a larger effort. "This is certainly a very important thing," says Robbins. "But we have 500 CEO and mayor members, working on all of these states to get members out." The group is also employing traditional lobbying efforts in Washington, DC.
"Everyone still wants to come [to America], but the reality is that there are a lot of other places to go."
America's tough visa system hits self-employed potential entrepreneurs particularly hard, and Robbins agrees with critics who say that it could lead to a "brain drain" as they leave for more hospitable nations. America, he says, can no longer rely on being the biggest destination for aspiring startup creators. "Everyone still wants to come here, but the reality is that there are a lot of other places to go." Industry icons like Steve Jobs' widow Laurene Powell Jobs have previously pushed for immigration reform and the DREAM Act, which would offer legal residency to undocumented minors who attend college or serve in the military.
The symbolic aspects of the protest extends beyond its high-tech trappings. A larger number of high-skilled immigrants could benefit every industry — though the "virtual march" is based on galvanizing supporters of the tech sector, the Partnership for a New American Economy is more generally business-focused. Manufacturers or hospitals, though, don't inspire the same sense of futuristic optimism. And in the larger world of immigration reform, it's more feasible to argue for keeping STEM graduates in the country than to push for improvements to the lives of low-skilled, often uneducated undocumented workers.