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Why Silicon Valley Wants Immigration Reform

Nicolas Loran | Vetta | Getty Images

In Silicon Valley, the dominant immigration conversation isn't about borders. It's about brains.

For big tech companies, that often means finding the engineering talent to actually create the products that visionaries have drawn up on the white board. Executives at Apple, Google, Intel and Hewlett-Packard will tell you the same thing: They're hard pressed to find the skilled local workforce they need to stay competitive.

That's part of the reason why tech luminaries such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Cisco CEO John Chambers wrote a letter to President Obama and Congress last month, urging them to make it easier to hire highly skilled immigrants for U.S. jobs. (Read more: Immigration Reform: What's It Going to Cost?)

"Last week on our web site at Intel, we had job openings for more than 800 engineers that people can go and apply to," said Peter Muller, director of government relations for the chip giant. "We can't find enough workers so we really need to fill that gap — and having a working immigration system is an important part of that."

Muller said he's hopeful about an immigration reform push now gaining steam in Congress, calling it "the best opportunity we've seen for a very long time to make it happen." But he also acknowledged that Silicon Valley's hunger for high-skilled workers bumps up against the more familiar immigration conversation about blue-collar jobs.

In the meantime, an improving economy has companies scrambling to apply for a limited number of H1-B visas, which allow them to hire specialized foreign workers in the United States. The U.S. Citizenship and immigration Services division said companies petitioned for 124,000 of the visas in less than a week – and only 85,000 are available. It's the first time in five years that demand for the visas exceeded supply so quickly. (Read more: Jobless Claims Back on Track; Inflation Eases Off)

The surge in demand for H1-Bs signals to some that companies are optimistic about growth. But for many investors and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, it also signals that the government's stance toward employing highly educated immigrants just doesn't make sense.

Dominic Orr, CEO of Aruba Networks, came to the U.S. from Macau as a college student 44 years ago. Since then he has run three companies, and grappled with the question of whether to hire in the U.S. or overseas. He believes there's merit to both — but that it can be important to have a team work together in a single location before spreading it out globally.

That's part of the reason why he believes Silicon Valley — and the U.S. as a whole — could use a more flexible immigration system. "We have the education system that attracted all this talent. And we put in all the energy to train them and let them return to their own country and contribute somewhere else," he said.Meanwhile at Aruba, "we have a tremendously difficult time getting the people we want that have the right skill sets."

And for Silicon Valley, that's the bottom line.

By CNBC's Tech correspondent, Jon Fortt.

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