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Science & Technology

Tech Companies Unlikely Voice In Immigration Debate


Silicon Valley tech companies have pushed for sometime for the U.S. to let more foreign workers with computer skills into the country. It's an immigration issue, but it's not often mentioned in the same breath with immigration concerns of agricultural workers, for instance, in the San Joaquin Valley, a couple of hours drive away. To convince Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, people from these two walks of life may need to come together.

From member station KQED, Aarti Shahani reports it's a divide not easily overcome.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Jetlore is a startup in Sunnyvale that uses algorithms to read the slang in Facebook posts and Twitter tweets. Two 28-year-olds founded the company: Montse Medina, a Spaniard, who welcomes me into the office with a popular immigrant greeting...

MONTSE MEDINA: Would you mind taking off the shoes? We actually have a no-shoe policy. But we do have guest slippers.

SHAHANI: ...and co-founder Eldar Sadikov, a Russian, who introduces me to their workforce.

ELDAR SADIKOV: Tudor, who's from Romania here, Ignacio, who's actually an American citizen but his family is from Mexico.

SHAHANI: What part of Mexico, Ignacio?

IGNACIO: (Unintelligible)

SHAHANI: Oh, OK, Michoacan.

Medina and Sadikov employ a mini-United Nations. They're award-winning authors in artificial intelligence and Stanford University graduates. Despite their brainpower, Medina and Sadikov are here as temporary guests. They do not have green cards. In that sense, they're like fellow immigrants who prune grapes. But Sadikov rejects that comparison outright.

SADIKOV: No, we are not. Obviously, I think I made more impact. I think I did more good things for this country. In a way, I deserve to be here.

MANUEL CUNHA: I can take a Silicon Valley Ph.D. or whatever who wouldn't know a thing about how to prune a grapevine.

SHAHANI: Manuel Cunha works in the other valley, the San Joaquin Valley, land of grapes, oranges, cotton. Cunha is the director of the Nisei Farmers League and has worked on immigration for decades. Cunha recalls a tense moment in 1996. Agriculture and high-tech both wanted visas. High-tech told Congress their workers are more valuable, and they won lawmakers' support.

CUNHA: And from that point on, that has always said to me that they only worry about them, and they don't worry about the rest of the country.

SHAHANI: Cunha says unlike past rounds of immigration reform, this one is distinct because it's trying to be, like the name says, comprehensive. That means building coalitions between ministers, police, restaurants, unions, chambers of commerce. When I ask Cunha if that also means he's reaching out to his neighbors in Silicon Valley, he flips the question.

CUNHA: Why haven't they come to the San Joaquin Valley? Because they're better than us?

PETE MULLER: We haven't really coordinated message because it's a different set of issues.

SHAHANI: Intel Corporation's policy director, Peter Muller, says he hasn't met with farmers because he's busy meeting with other tech companies trying to finally form a lobby with an industry that's long resisted politics. Muller recalls his own tense moment in 2012. Intel wanted visas for Indian and Chinese workers. Their bill won by a landslide in the House just to get blocked in the Senate.

MULLER: There were some senators who felt that it was not right to just deal with that one small issue and thought that there were bigger issues in the immigration arena that needed to be dealt with.

SHAHANI: Muller says if Congress wants a big comprehensive bill, it's on Congress to build the bridges.

MULLER: We're focused on the Immigration Innovation Act. And if the pieces of that that are important to us are included in a broader bill that has other things in it, that's something we'll be supportive of.

SHAHANI: For weeks, Silicon Valley representative in Congress, Zoe Lofgren, would not grant an interview. But her colleague from Illinois, Congressman Luis Gutierrez, jumped on the phone and recited his message to her constituents.

REPRESENTATIVE LUIS GUTIERREZ: I have told them time and time again, until you take the least among you, and she or he gets an opportunity, it's going to be broken for everyone.

SHAHANI: Gutierrez did not deliver that message in person during his recent visit to the Bay Area. He met with farm workers, not with techies. And he's counting on the voting power of Latinos to get the tech lobby in line.

GUTIERREZ: Particularly from the Latino community, people didn't go and vote on November 6th to give one person a leg up over another.

SHAHANI: Arguably, it's the Latino vote that put immigration on the table. And arguably, as Gutierrez notes, it's the tech companies - and the money and jobs they're promising - that'll win over reluctant lawmakers.

GUTIERREZ: There will not be a problem with the Congress on the Republican and Democratic side providing tens of thousands of visas for the high-tech industry.

SHAHANI: And do you ever get the pushback of: Hey, don't strangle my dreams because you want me as some piece in your chess game?

GUTIERREZ: Yeah, I get that. But I have to tell you, we're going to do this for everyone.

SHAHANI: To do this for everyone, Silicon Valley and the San Joaquin Valley will have to pool their electoral and economic power. And that might take a conversation. For NPR News, I'm Aarti Shahani in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.