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Facebook Joins Lobby For Overhauling Immigration


Here in Washington, Facebook is the new kid on the block - the new rich kid. Last year, the company spent almost $4 million on lobbying. In today's Business Bottom Line, NPR's Martin Kaste asks what they got for the money.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Facebook's big priority in Washington this year is the immigration bill, specifically the piece of the bill that opens the gates wider to tech workers from overseas. Dan Turrentine of the trade group TechNet says his industry is desperate for foreign talent.

DAN TURRENTINE: Microsoft has 3,500 high-tech jobs that they cannot fill. Intel has 1,700. I mean, you can go on and on.

KASTE: So, the bill hammered out by the so-called Gang of Eight senators increases the limit on H1B visas, visas for skilled workers. But the bill also turns the screws on outsourcing companies, which have a track record of abusing the visas to bring in cheap replacement workers. Those companies face tougher rules. And Turrentine says that's fine, up to a point.

TURRENTINE: There's a bipartisan recognition that not all users of the system are the same. And we think that's an important difference that people need to recognize.

KASTE: The Gang of Eight certainly recognized it. Their bill contains language that's now been dubbed the Facebook exception. Basically, it means that the tougher rules will not apply to a company like Facebook - that is, a company that applies for permanent residency for its foreign workers.

DANIEL COSTA: That was a complete surprise to me when I read about it.

KASTE: Daniel Costa follows immigration law for the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. He says the Facebook exception could undermine the bill's reforms.

COSTA: You won't have to pay a higher wage. You won't have to do the extra recruiting for U.S. workers. And so, really, you can get around all of the protections that were built in for U.S. workers.

KASTE: Facebook wouldn't do an interview for this story, but in a prepared statement, the company says that provision of the bill, quote, "strengthens our immigration system by incentivizing companies to bring top talent to the United States for the long term," unquote. The company is taking some flack this week. It's being boycotted by some liberal groups. Josh Orton is with Progressives United.

JOSH ORTON: The organizations - and now it's up to, I think, 11 organizations - have pledged to either pull down existing Facebook - paid Facebook ads, or not buy ads for at least two weeks.

KASTE: But here's the thing: This boycott is not about the Facebook exception, nor is it about a recent EPI study casting doubt on the claims of a tech worker shortage. It's not about any of that. What the liberal groups are peeved at is this...


KASTE: TV ads, on behalf of senators who support the immigration bill.


KASTE: The ads are meant to bolster the senator's conservative cred with voters, and they were paid for by Forward.us. That's the new pro-immigration group launched by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. It's a classic Beltway squabble, but John Miano expects it won't imperil the tech industry's alliance with the left.

JOHN MIANO: We have this grand bargain between these two political interests, and the average American workers in the middle are - have been completely left out.

KASTE: Miano is a former programmer. Now he's a lawyer who represents displaced tech workers. He blogs for the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that's decidedly right-wing. But for now, groups like this are just about the only ones opposing the increase in tech worker visas. Miano says with tech giants like Facebook teaming up with well-heeled liberal groups, he doubts his views will get much of a hearing on Capitol Hill. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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