Zuckerberg's Pony in the Immigration Reform Race

Most Americans agree that the immigration system in this country is broken but to what extent, how it should be fixed and how it has anything (whatsoever) to do with the technology industry is up for debate.

Last year, Pew Research found that strong majorities of both Republicans (89 percent) and Democrats (79 percent) think the immigration system needs major change or needs to be rebuilt, and that's what the Mark Zuckerberg-backed fwd.us initiative (with support from Bill Gates, Marissa Mayer and other prominent tech leaders) wants to draw attention to particularly around three areas: border security, visa reform and creating a pathway to citizenship for the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

In terms of how that will all be achieved, fwd.us is self-reportedly "agnostic about the details," but the initiative may serve its own interests. Website Magazine learned more about fwd.us at an event hosted on its behalf in Yorba Linda, Calif., where a panel of politicians and tech executives discussed immigration reform.

Michael Dubin, for example, founder/CEO of Dollar Shave Club (recently acquired by Unilever for $1 billion), "jumped at the chance" to get involved with fwd.us after witnessing how losing the lottery for highly skilled workers uprooted one of his top technical employees.

For the unfamiliar, H-1B Visas allow employment of foreign workers in occupations that require highly specialized knowledge like in science, engineering and computer programming, but acceptance is competitive and random (the U.S. received nearly 233,000 petitions last year but only 65,000 were chosen from a computer drawing for the general-category cap and 20,000 for advanced-degree exemption).

Zuckerberg and his lobbying group want to increase the caps for H-1B Visas, because if there's one area tech cares about, it is competition. There's a widely reported skills gap in tech, of course, leaving the unemployment rate of IT professionals much lower than state or national averages (in many cases about half according to Upp Technology). Increasing the number of H-1B Visas for tech, specifically, could be a short-term fix for Silicon Valley.

Long term, one has to imagine that access and affordability of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education has a better outlook. Some fwd.us panelists, however, want assurances that when the country invests in education, those who receive one here can stay, innovate and employ here. Fwd.us, for example, reports for every foreign-born STEM graduate, 2.62 jobs are created for Americans.

Regardless, plenty of tech companies believe the current skill gap is to their disadvantage, so they have started coding camps, worked more closely with colleges, empowered young women, etc., but kids only grow so fast - and Election Day is looming so candidates have their opinions on the matter too.

Donald Trump has taken a direct aim at the tech industry stating, "More than half of H-1B Visas are issued for the program's lowest allowable wage level, and more than 80 percent for its bottom two."

Therefore, Trump proposes to raise the prevailing wage paid to H-1Bs forcing, "companies to give these coveted entry-level jobs to the domestic pool of unemployed native and immigrant workers in the U.S., instead of flying in cheaper workers from overseas. This will improve the number of black, Hispanic and female workers in Silicon Valley who have been passed over in favor of the H-1B program. Mark Zuckerberg's personal Senator, Marco Rubio, has a bill to triple H-1Bs that would decimate women and minorities."

While most of us wouldn't say it like Trump, it's clear there is no one answer to immigration reform. Most of us ourselves are walking contradictions on how to fix a broken system (calling for competition but not more visas or calling for better border security but definitely not a wall).

As far as tech in the U.S. goes, the industry can create jobs and keep us competitive on a global scale regardless of where a person is from who is initiating it. On the other hand, we need a better long-term approach to get under-served communities empowered and involved in tech with or without visa reform. Nobody has all the answers, but fwd.us is starting the conversation even if "it's complicated."