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Obama's immigration plan comes up short for Silicon Valley

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President makes it easier for foreign-born entrepreneurs to stay in the US, but technology executives say it's not enough

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President Barack Obama last night announced sweeping plans to overhaul the nation's immigration system, including provisions that would make it easier for foreign-born entrepreneurs and engineers to stay in the US. The initiative, implemented under the president's executive authority, promises to stop deportation and provide work permits for nearly five million undocumented immigrants. It also includes minor tweaks to streamline the green card process for visa holders, but Silicon Valley executives have expressed dismay that the plan doesn't do more to keep skilled foreign workers in the US.

"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," Obama said during a 15-minute televised address Thursday night.

Under the president's plan, visa holders will be able to change employers while applying for green cards, and spouses of some H-1B visa holders will be eligible for work permits. The H-1B is a temporary visa that allows skilled foreign workers in certain sectors to stay in the US for up to six years.

Technology companies and lobbyists have long been pushing for an expansion of the H-1B program, which currently limits issued visas to 65,000 per year, arguing that the quota keeps them from hiring talented engineers. Last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched a bipartisan group, FWD.us, aimed at overhauling the immigration system, with support from other leading Silicon Valley executives.

"If this is all there is, then the president has missed a real opportunity."

"Our focus really is on H-1B visas and trying to expand the number of talented technical professionals that can come to the US," Qualcomm CFO George Davis said before the president's address. "The way the regulations are drafted today there's a lot of room for improvement."

Others were disappointed that the president didn't take stronger action to streamline the green card process for current H-1B holders. Critics say the green card process is bogged down in bureaucracy and red tape, forcing entrepreneurs to leave the country once their visa expires.

"If this is all there is, then the president has missed a real opportunity," Russ Harrison, of the IEEE, tells Reuters. "He could have taken steps to make it easier for skilled immigrants to become Americans through the green card system, protecting foreign workers and Americans in the process."

Proposals to expand the H-1B program have enjoyed bipartisan support in the past, but some fear that Republicans may be less willing to cooperate amid criticism of Obama's executive action.