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On immigration, tech picks its battles carefully

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Microsoft made headlines last week when both its president and CEO issued a strongly worded statement in defense of DACA, an Obama-era program that allows immigrants who came to the US as children to stay if they meet certain requirements. The Trump administration is reportedly considering ending the program, and the president tweeted this morning that he expects Congress to move on the issue.

The highly visible defense of an immigration policy adds to the very vocal condemnation of Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries earlier this year. Executives from tech giants like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook all spoke out against that move, and employees staged large protests at their worksites. Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who immigrated from Russia as a child to escape anti-Semitic persecution, joined protestors at the San Francisco Airport, and described himself as a refugee.

When it comes to the immigration program with the greatest impact on tech, however, these companies use a lighter touch. The H-1B visa program allows companies to recruit highly skilled workers from overseas, and bring tens of thousands of people into the US each year to work for IBM, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook, and many others. It is a much larger source of labor than the DACA program. Apple said recently that it will work to protect the 250 people it employs who are covered by DACA. For comparison, Apple submitted over 23,000 petitions for H-1B workers in 2016.

H-1B isn’t just larger, it is also controversial, decried by American labor groups as a way to outsource positions and replace older employees with cheaper labor that receives fewer benefits and protections. So while tech companies have a lot to lose should the H-1B program be halted, they aren’t as vocal in its defense.

The Trump administration’s efforts to curb immigration, of course, show how irreparably linked these policies are. When a federal judge in Seattle blocked Trump’s travel ban, he cited a motion from Microsoft that argued the ban would cause immediate and irreparable injury. “Washington's technology industry relies heavily on the H-1B visa program. Nationwide, Washington ranks ninth in the number of applications for high-tech visas. Microsoft, which is headquartered in Washington, employs nearly 5,000 people through the program. Other Washington companies, including Amazon, Expedia, and Starbucks, employ thousands of H-1B visa holders. Loss of highly skilled workers puts Washington companies at a competitive disadvantage with global competitors,” he said.

The tech industry’s public stance on H-1B has been far milder than its pushback on other immigration issues, but behind the scenes, it’s been pumping money into lobbying for the defense and expansion of this program. The total contributions eclipsed donations by traditional immigration advocates years ago, and have not slowed down since. At the start of this year, all of tech’s biggest names kept their focus on immigration lobbying constant, with Alphabet increasing its pressure.

In the past, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended H-1B by name. “Why do we offer so few H-1B visas for talented specialists that the supply runs out within days of becoming available each year, even though we know each of these jobs will create two or three more American jobs in return?” asked Zuckerberg in April 2013. These days, he is less direct. A post this May included an explicit reference to the Dreamers protected by DACA, but made no mention of H-1B. Zuckerberg now leaves explicit support for H-1B to FWD.US, an advocacy group Facebook helped to found, and continues to support it, along with Bill Gates of Microsoft and Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn. It pushed candidates during the 2016 election cycle to increase the number of H-1B visas being made available each year.

It’s not that tech doesn’t publicly discuss H-1B at all. Satya Nadella reportedly pressed the issue of H-1B in an off-the-record summit between tech leaders and Trump in December 2016, arguing it was a critical way to secure highly skilled talent. On the campaign trail, President Trump promised to eliminate the program, but in April of this year, he signed an executive order that was more conservative, calling for a review and suggesting possible changes.

In May, during an interview with American Public Media, Nadella welcomed the review, saying, “Ultimately, it’s about high-skill labor and a review that says there is the right use of [the H-1B] and misuses of it and we promote more the right uses of it, all the better for American competitiveness. At least at Microsoft, when we think about H-1B, it’s mostly about high-skilled labor that allows us, an American company, to be globally competitive.” But while Microsoft talks quietly about its support for reforms, it’s championed a bill that would triple the number of H-1B visas granted each year without meaningfully changing the requirements around how they are handed out.