SAN FRANCISCO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama plans to make life a little easier for some foreign tech workers, but Silicon Valley representatives are disappointed his immigration rule changes will not satisfy longstanding demands for more visas and faster green cards.
In a speech on Thursday, Obama outlined plans to use executive authority to help millions of undocumented people. He also announced minor adjustments to cut red tape for visa holders and their families, including letting spouses of certain H-1B visa holders get work permits.
"I will make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders have proposed," Obama said.
The president's moves will make it easier for entrepreneurs to work in the United States and extend a program letting foreign students who graduate with advanced degrees from U.S. universities to work temporarily in the United States.
But tech industry insiders said the changes, while positive, were limited.
"This holiday season, the undocumented advocacy community got the equivalent of a new car, and the business community got a wine and cheese basket," complained one lobbyist, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Instead of more temporary H-1B visas, which allow non-U.S. citizens with advanced skills and degrees in "specialty occupations" to work in the country for up to six years, the 200,000-member U.S. chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers was hoping for measures to reduce the backlog of H-1B holders awaiting green cards.
"If this is all there is, then the president has missed a real opportunity," said Russ Harrison, a senior legislative representative at the IEEE. "He could have taken steps to make it easier for skilled immigrants to become Americans through the green card system, protecting foreign workers and Americans in the process."
For instance, IEEE and technology companies want spouses and children to be excluded from employment-based green-card allotments, thereby increasing availability for other foreign tech workers seeking green cards.
Tech companies from Microsoft Corp to Intel have complained about being unable to find enough highly skilled employees and want Washington to increase the availability of visas for programmers, engineers and other specialized foreign professionals.
“Our focus really is on H-1B visas and trying to expand the number of talented technical professionals that can come to the U.S.," Qualcomm CFO George Davis said ahead of Obama's announcement. "The way the regulations are drafted today there's a lot of room for improvement."
Major changes would require Congressional action, however, and tech industry executives are worried that partisan rancor over Obama's unilateral action could set back chances for legislation.
“I don’t view this as a long-term solution, and I hope it doesn’t get in the way of a long-term solution,” said Dave Goldberg, chief executive of SurveyMonkey, a Palo Alto based company.
The AFL-CIO said in a statement it would seek to ensure visa workers are afforded rights and protections.
"We are concerned by the President's concession to corporate demands for even greater access to temporary visas that will allow the continued suppression of wages in the tech sector," the labor giant said.
While limited, Obama's policy changes, such as letting more spouses work, will help some tech workers and their families.
Gayathri Kumar, 29, moved a year ago from India to Phoenix, Arizona, where her husband works at Intel. She has a masters degree in communications and wants to work in television, but Kumar spends much of her day at home, chatting with friends over social media.
"I really want to work. I came here with a passion to work, not to sit at home," Kumar said. "I’m bored, I’m becoming depressed."
Reporting by Noel Randewich in San Francisco and Roberta Rampton in Washington. Additional reporting by Sarah McBride in San Francisco.; Editing by Eric Effron, Tom Brown and Ken Wills