We Shouldn’t Trust Tech Industry Billionaires to Lead the Way on Immigrants’ Rights

Julianne Tveten July 27, 2017

Founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg delivers his keynote conference on the opening day of the World Mobile Congress at the Fira Gran Via Complex on February 22, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Ear­li­er this month, the admin­is­tra­tion of Don­ald Trump post­poned the enact­ment of the Inter­na­tion­al Entre­pre­neur Rule, a pro­gram that would grant for­eign busi­ness­peo­ple the tem­po­rary abil­i­ty to found com­pa­nies in the Unit­ed States. The ulti­mate goal, the admin­is­tra­tion announced, is to rescind the rule.

The move ran­kled the tech indus­try, which owes much of its plen­i­tude to the work of enter­pris­ing immi­grants. Steve Jobs might nev­er have been born,” many dot­ing tech­nocrats have rumi­nat­ed, if his father hadn’t been able to come to the Unit­ed States from Syr­ia. AOL co-founder Steve Case lam­bast­ed the deci­sion as a big mis­take,” and ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Bob­by Franklin told the Los Ange­les Times the devel­op­ment stems from a fun­da­men­tal mis­un­der­stand­ing of the crit­i­cal role immi­grant entre­pre­neurs play in grow­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can companies.”

This sen­ti­ment is hard­ly new. Sil­i­con Val­ley has a his­to­ry of lob­by­ing for immi­gra­tion rights, which has cul­mi­nat­ed in a num­ber of tech­no­crat­ic Oba­ma-era bills, includ­ing the Immi­gra­tion Inno­va­tion Act and the Start­up Act.

Since Trump’s xeno­pho­bic ascent, how­ev­er, the industry’s efforts to pre­serve its work­force have grown more vis­i­ble, gal­va­nized by the shock of such unprece­dent­ed threats to its tal­ent as the trav­el ban tar­get­ing Mus­lim-major­i­ty coun­tries. Tech titans con­demn Trump while laud­ing immi­grant tech­nol­o­gists, parad­ing their own poten­tial to main­tain the country’s diver­si­ty, boost its pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and ensure oppor­tu­ni­ties for indus­tri­ous immi­grants in what have proven to be try­ing times.

Yet, when sift­ed through the Sil­i­con Val­ley fil­ter, immi­gra­tion reform takes a disin­gen­u­ous turn.

Among the tech industry’s chief tar­gets is the H‑1B visa, which allows U.S. com­pa­nies to tem­porar­i­ly employ for­eign work­ers in spe­cial­ty occu­pa­tions,” such as engi­neer­ing, med­i­cine or account­ing. Tech lob­by­ists have long implored author­i­ties to ease H‑1B restric­tions, claim­ing con­cern over a dearth of domes­tic engineers.

It’s a hol­low nar­ra­tive. Val­ley elites aren’t so con­cerned with the afore­men­tioned short­ages, which are apoc­ryphal, and — if any­thing—the result of the industry’s racism and sex­ism. They are more con­cerned with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to har­vest the tal­ents of young, STEM-edu­cat­ed peo­ple in Asian coun­tries will­ing to work for sig­nif­i­cant­ly less than their U.S. coun­ter­parts. A study from the Nation­al Acad­e­mies of Sci­ences, Engi­neer­ing and Med­i­cine not­ed that H‑1B work­ers received low­er wages, less [sic] senior job titles, small­er sign­ing bonus­es, and small­er pay and com­pen­sa­tion increas­es than would be typ­i­cal for the work they actu­al­ly did.” Addi­tion­al­ly, the Eco­nom­ics Pol­i­cy Insti­tute report­ed ear­li­er this year that the aver­age Sil­i­con Val­ley soft­ware devel­op­er earns $147,000 per year, while an H‑1B soft­ware devel­op­er earn­ing the entry-lev­el wage is paid $102,000.

The con­di­tions of H‑1B visas often teth­er immi­grant work­ers to their employ­ers, fur­nish­ing tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies with labor that’s not only cheap, but also immo­bile. Employ­ers own and con­trol H‑1B visas, with many spon­sor­ing their work­ers for U.S. per­ma­nent res­i­den­cy. The H‑1B pro­gram, then, effec­tive­ly sen­tences these work­ers to inden­tured servi­tude. Those who lose their jobs are instant­ly sus­cep­ti­ble to depor­ta­tion. As com­put­er sci­ence pro­fes­sor Norm Mat­loff has argued, though [for­eign work­ers] have the right to move to anoth­er employ­er, they do not dare do so, as it would mean start­ing the lengthy green card process all over again.”

The con­se­quences of Sil­i­con Valley’s efforts extend far beyond work­ing con­di­tions, betray­ing a dis­crim­i­na­to­ry, naked­ly cap­i­tal­ist val­ue sys­tem for immi­grants. As tech­no-cap­i­tal­ists sing the prais­es of the best and bright­est” STEM-edu­cat­ed tal­ent, they ulti­mate­ly seek to pro­tect only those immi­grants who are trained to aug­ment their own prof­its. In oth­er words, they seek to sup­port those with the where­with­al to not only earn a col­lege degree, but also to par­lay it into a rev­enue-gen­er­at­ing, white-col­lar job.

In the eyes of the tech mag­nate, seek­ing refuge from war, pover­ty, or oth­er impe­ri­al­ist abus­es inflict­ed in one’s moth­er coun­try is all well and good, but it alone won’t jus­ti­fy efforts to make a new home in the Unit­ed States. To be deemed wor­thy, immi­grants must show an abil­i­ty and com­mit­ment to but­tress a bil­lion-dol­lar tech­nol­o­gy busi­ness — and to accept slashed wages in the process.

This con­di­tion­al accep­tance is linked to a prin­ci­ple that has long under­gird­ed the tech indus­try: Amer­i­can excep­tion­al­ism. Couched with­in Sil­i­con Valley’s reformist clar­i­on calls is an exhor­ta­tion to com­pete with oth­er coun­tries: Cana­da, Ger­many, South Africa, and Chi­na, all of which have sought to lure engi­neers from abroad in recent years. FWD​.us, an immi­gra­tion-reform group found­ed by such Val­ley fix­tures as Mark Zucker­berg, Bill Gates, and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoff­man, seeks to keep the U.S. com­pet­i­tive in a glob­al econ­o­my.” Tech and busi­ness pun­dit Vivek Wad­hwa warns, The country’s com­pet­i­tive­ness is at stake now more than ever…we need eco­nom­ic growth and job cre­ation and we need to wel­come those who would bring about both.”

These calls-to-action again affix immi­grants’ val­ue to their abil­i­ty to stim­u­late eco­nom­ic growth” for a coun­try and indus­try all too eager to exploit them.

Sil­i­con Val­ley is right to oppose Trump, but its efforts are mere sub­terfuge. As the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty toys with a new slo­gan lead­ing with the phrase bet­ter skills,” the true fight for immi­grants’ rights must reject the obses­sion with eval­u­at­ing peo­ple on school­ing and mar­ket con­tri­bu­tion. Above all, we must rec­og­nize the rights of every per­son — regard­less of place of ori­gin or resumé — to live com­fort­ably and safe­ly and be accept­ed and val­ued — with­out fear of reproach for not know­ing how to code.

Julianne Tveten writes about tech­nol­o­gy, labor, and cul­ture, among oth­er top­ics. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Cap­i­tal & Main, KPFK Paci­fi­ca Radio, and elsewhere.
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