The tech industry is at a critical juncture in its quest for immigration reform: How hard to push?
First, a quick recap.
In a remarkable political evolution, the heavyweights of Silicon Valley and the rest of the industry put principle before profits. Rather than push for their narrow self interest and back solely changes to high-tech visas and green cards, the tech industry tied itself to the push for comprehensive immigration reform. Entrepreneurs and tech executives connected the absurdities they experience in recruiting and retaining talented foreigners to the struggles of the Honduran janitor and Guatemalan nanny who haven't seen their families for years.
With the "Dreamers" as their mascot, tech advocacy groups helped rally the public to see the plight of illegal immigrants as the civil rights issue of our era. The immigration system is broken for everyone, they said.
And, amazingly, it seemed to work. The Senate passed a comprehensive bill, and momentum appeared to be building over the summer that a long-intractable issue was closer to a legislative solution.
But now the effort has stalled. Congress is running out of working days this year. In 2014, the issue will get caught up in the dynamics of midyear elections, with some House Republicans scared they will lose their seats if they vote for reform.
If immigration reform doesn't happen in 2014, the issue slides into presidential primary season and will likely be lost.
Industry lobbyists remain upbeat. "We would have loved to have finished this year," said Robert Hoffman, senior vice president of government relations for the Information Technology Industry Council, which counts Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG) and Facebook as members. "We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that we need to keep prodding the House and keep asking that progress be made. Every indication suggests that there are efforts underway to find a way forward."
For tech supporters of comprehensive immigration reform, one option would be to "de-link" the skilled visa and green card proposals, which most lawmakers support, from the bigger, tougher problem of a path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants.
But that would be bad. It's bad politics: Senate Democrats and the Obama administration say they'll only support the total package.
It's bad policy: The immigration system is broken for everyone and should be fixed for everybody.
And it's bad public relations: If the result is a final bill that doesn't address the 11 million, the tech industry will be excoriated, especially by the young tech users who've made a cause out of the Dreamers, young illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
I also believe tech leaders are sincere in their support for comprehensive reform, so I don't think they'll reverse course.
So that leaves them in a bit of a bind. What to do?
Politics is a contact sport, but it only works if there's contact. And that means money, which the tech industry has in abundance. Its lobbyists and leaders could give wavering House Republicans a choice: "Vote for comprehensive immigration reform and receive our support in your next election -- or we will find opponents to go up against you."
Those talks may be happening quietly, but to succeed, the industry should look at Tom Steyer, the billionaire former hedge fund manager, who is publicly backing candidates with environmental positions he agrees with. That's one reason Terry McAuliffe is Virginia's governor-elect.
"The tech industry needs to consider its own experience," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic political consultant who works with Steyer. "They have triumphed in business as disrupters. What they have done so well in business is what they need to apply to politics -- being disrupters."
OK, these are brass knuckle tactics. The industry generally has a positive public image that doesn't include a tradition of breaking kneecaps on Capitol Hill to get its way. Besides, there are serious risks. Patent reform is gaining traction in Washington, and comprehensive tax reform is around the corner. Tech has done a good job making friends with the GOP in recent years, especially on those issues, and it risks aggravating them if it pushes them on immigration reform.
Emily Lam, who handles federal policy for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, told me that "it will be interesting to see if tech continues to advocate and lobby the same way or evolve given the gridlock."
Next week, at LinkedIn's headquarters, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Dropbox CEO Drew Houston will be on hand to mentor 20 Dreamers at a hackathon to push Congress to take action. The event will likely get positive press.
Note to tech industry: Money talks louder than hackathons. It's time to show your real muscle and get the job done.
Contact Michelle Quinn at 510-394-4196 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at Twitter/michellequinn.