Rep. DelBene, Former Tech Exec, Talks Immigration, Electronic Privacy, Sales Tax

7/10/13Follow @bromano

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SD: Immigration is kind of like a Venn diagram. You think you have these distinct areas, but many times they overlap. You set policy in one place, it has an impact on something else. How we deal with families of people who are coming for jobs, et cetera, all of that stuff we should look at in its entirety. I think the Senate bill does that. That’s going to be important. I hope the House is willing to look at a comprehensive piece of legislation, because doing it in pieces means that we end up not getting everybody to the table at the same time, not necessarily having consistent policy, and we really need a reset on immigration right now. …

That being said, clearly, we have an immigration issue in the high-tech sector. We want to be globally competitive. We want to make sure we have the workforce that we need for many different skills, and part of that goes from people who are willing to start companies here, who are bringing great new research and ideas to the table, maybe going to graduate school here, but it’s also filling the workforce demands that many folks have in our innovative new companies and our very well-established companies. I have spent this week talking to companies here locally, and finding the right workforce is a top priority for everyone.

X: Some of the coverage of the immigration debate indicates the tech industry got nearly everything it wanted in the Senate bill, after a pretty unprecedented lobbying and advertising push around passage of it. Do you see anything they didn’t get that they’re now asking for as debate moves to the House, or is there something that you think needs to be added or adjusted?

SD: Definitely one of the things that’s come up, and we talked about in our markup in the House side, is investments in education. … If folks are looking for visas, maybe there’s a cost that also gets used to help provide educational programs and workforce training here in the United States to help build up our workforce, the STEM workforce. We need to make sure we’re looking at policy that helps meet our needs today, but also over the long term, and make sure we’re educating folks. … Companies like Microsoft have talked about this. We need to figure out how to do both, how to fix our immigration system, but also make sure we’re doing great development here.

X: We often hear complaints about the H-1B skilled worker visa program from American high-tech job seekers who say they can’t find work, or are seeing wages depressed by H-1B workers, and that the “STEM worker shortage” is a justification fabricated by the tech companies that want to have this flexibility to hire from around the world. What is your reaction to these concerns, and do you see anything in the Senate bill that’s addressing them?

SD: The H-1B system or whatever system comes in place to replace it is about filling gaps and bringing talent in that we may not be able to find otherwise. It’s not about trying to find a lower-wage workforce. … The fees associated, moving people over, the legal work that needs to be done, makes [H-1B] an expensive process. If you can find somebody nearby who has those skills and meets that need, that’s clearly a great move for a business and, so, really I think that’s the dynamic that’s going to drive things going forward. If there are people who are local and have those skills and are ready to do those jobs, I think the incentive is always there from a business perspective to hire those people right here, and they want to see that talent here.

I think one of the things that gets confused is a software engineer isn’t going to be able to fill the need for an acoustic engineer, and so there are a lot of different skill sets. Even within software there are many different types of programmers and skill sets there. So, unfortunately, not everybody is interchangeable. One of the things we’ll have to look at is where the greatest needs are, and help provide training programs if people need to learn to do something slightly different than what they’d done before. But when you’re in a global economy and there’s global competition out there, people want to find the best folks they can find in that specialized area they’re looking for.

X: There’s been some criticism on this issue of your ties to Microsoft, of course a big user of H-1B workers. How does your background in tech influence your thinking on whether we should have a mechanism to attract and retain more foreign STEM talent? Why is that the right thing to do? … Next Page »

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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