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The tech lobby should be really nervous about what Hillary Clinton just said

A big shift in whom immigration reform is supposed to help.

It was supposed to be the last bipartisan immigration proposal standing: expanding visas to allow more high-skilled workers to come to the United States.

Hillary Clinton just put a stake through its heart.

Hillary Clinton
Charles Mostoller | Reuters
Hillary Clinton

In an interview with Vox, Clinton described comprehensive immigration reform as a way to "keep the pressure on" the tech industry to "resolve the bigger problem" — "and then we can look to see what else, if anything, can and should be done."

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Clinton is making it clear that for Democrats, immigration is an issue primarily about Latino voters — not tech donors. The tech industry has sometimes thought of itself as first among equals when it comes to the "immigration reform" coalition — now there's reason for it to worry it might be last.

The point of immigration reform, for Clinton, is a path to citizenship

The idea of a comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship that I would envision is one that would deal with a lot of these concerns, not just the 11 million people here: how we would regularize them, what kind of steps they'd have to go through. Because I believe they do have to meet certain standards if they're going to be on a path to citizenship.

But I don't want to mix that with other kinds of changes in visas and other concerns that particularly high-value technical companies have. In fact, I think keeping the pressure on them helps us resolve the bigger problem, and then we can look to see what else, if anything, can and should be done.

As immigration has become a partisan issue, the two parties have developed different definitions of "immigration reform." For Democrats, it doesn't count as "reform" if it doesn't grant legal status and eventual citizenship to the 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently in the US. Republicans need "reform" to include vastly more border security; Democrats don't even agree with them about how secure the US/Mexico border is right now.

But there was one proposal that both sides could get behind, even with the split on "comprehensive immigration reform": allowing the booming tech sector to bring highly educated STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) professionals.

Some in the tech industry continue to nurture the hope that Congress can come together to pass a bill that just expands high-skilled visas, avoiding the political thicket of other immigration reforms. (During President Obama's first term, bills to increase high-skilled visas were actually the closest to immigration reform that Congress came, though they were voted down by Democrats.)

Clinton has just thrown cold water on that. "The idea of a comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship that I would envision is one that would deal with a lot of these concerns," she said. "I don't want to mix that with other kinds of changes in visas and other concerns that particularly high-value technical companies have. In fact, I think keeping the pressure on them helps us resolve the bigger problem, and then we can look to see what else, if anything, can and should be done."

What Clinton told Vox was such a clear statement of her immigration priorities — that the path to citizenship is the core of immigration reform, and everything else is secondary — that some of my colleagues actually thought she was proposing passing a path to citizenship before considering other bills.

Her campaign clarified that Clinton was not floating the possibility of piecemeal reform that would address a path to citizenship first and visa reforms later, just reiterating the importance of tackling the path to citizenship as part of a comprehensive package.

But it's still impossible to miss the message: Tech, and everyone else, needs to take a back seat to unauthorized immigrants and their families (millions of whom, of course, are US citizens and voters).

Clinton is beginning to question the "no-brainer" benefits of tech visas

Mainstream Democrats have tended to see high-skilled visas as one component of broader immigration reform and the tech industry as one member of the coalition pushing for it.

Democrats were enthusiastic about the idea of more visas for skilled immigrants, mind you. They were just making a political calculation: If high-skilled visas were expanded first, it would be a lot harder to get Republicans on board for a path to citizenship. Clinton alluded to this in the Vox interview: "Keeping the pressure on them helps us resolve the bigger problem."

Once you think about it, though, that's a very weird thing for a politician to admit. Can you imagine how bad it would look for Hillary Clinton — or anyone — to say outright, "Yeah, we aren't doing this popular thing because we want to force through this less popular thing beside it"?

But that's not what's happening here. Because the dirty little secret of immigration politics is that even though expanding high-skilled visas was the most popular part of immigration reform among elected officials, it was arguably the least popular part with the American public.

And it sounds like Clinton is listening — and taking that criticism seriously. "The many stories of people training their replacements from some foreign country are heartbreaking," she told Vox. "I want to see companies have to do more to employ already qualified Americans."

But I would also add one of the biggest complaints I hear around the country is how callous and insensitive American corporations have become to American workers who have skills that are ones that should make them employable. The many stories of people training their replacements from some foreign country are heartbreaking, and it is obviously a cost-cutting measure to be able to pay people less than you would pay an American worker.

I think it's also a very unfair and sad commentary that we don't want to invest in training American workers because that's just "time-consuming." And it's a cost — so even if they could do what we're wanting them to do, it's just easier to get someone who will be largely compliant because they want to stay in the country. And that's just wrong.

So there's work we have to do on all sides of the immigration debate, and I want to see companies have to do more to employ already qualified Americans.

A few years ago, this is something you might have heard from certain labor leaders and certain anti-immigration Republicans (chief among them Sen. Jeff Sessions, who's now a close adviser to Donald Trump), but few others.

Over the past few years, however, Democrats have become increasingly critical of the way the US currently gives visas to high-skilled and affluent immigrants — or, rather, to the companies that hire them.

Pro-labor Democrats don't love the idea of tying a worker to an employer for two years and stripping his legal status from him if he quits — some high-profile abuse cases facing immigrants on other visas has thrown that into relief. Nor do they love the idea of an employer being allowed to pay an immigrant a lower wage than he pays an American worker — thrown into relief by recent cases, including one at Walt Disney World, where Americans have claimed they had to train their own immigrant replacements.

The idea that tech companies can't find qualified American workers has gotten more dubious in the wake of allegations that big tech firms colluded to keep wages low. And the fact that thousands of high-skilled visas are going to a few large outsourcing firms makes it hard to argue that visa holders are spurring American innovation.

It's clear from her Vox interview that Clinton, or at least someone on her staff, is sensitive to these concerns — she actually mentioned the Disney case by name, which is an indication that they're following the issue somewhat closely.

Tech is used to being courted by both parties. Now it's just another interest group.

"I want to see companies have to do more to employ already qualified Americans" can't be a line that tech companies are exactly happy to hear. But what are they going to do about it?

For the past several years, both parties have heavily courted tech donor money. The industry got a relatively late start in building a lobbying presence in Washington — likely in part because the "Silicon Valley mindset" has little patience for the sausage grind of legislation — but individual tech moguls have been highly prized, and their opinions duly sought out, by Democrats and Republicans alike.

For many of these moguls (Eric Schmidt and Steve Case come to mind), expanding high-skilled visas is the most important issue. (Mark Zuckerberg is an asterisk here: He's put a lot of money into immigration reform, but he appears to be just as interested in a path to citizenship as he is in visa reform.)

The presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, has literally spent his entire campaign wresting his party from pro-business immigration interests. His immigration platform, inspired (at least) by Sessions himself, calls for serious reductions in high-skilled visas. Nor does he side with business on other issues — it's extremely hard to believe the tech industry would start raising money to elect a pro-surveillance, anti-globalization president.

Clinton is demoting the tech industry to, at best, a provisional coalition partner on immigration reform. But that's a better deal than it's getting from the other party right now.

In other words, tech is now in the same position that the Latino vote has been for a generation: Democrats treat them as well or poorly as they want, because they certainly won't bolt for Republicans. It might be a chance to learn what being an interest group, in a polarized age, actually looks like.