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Immigration reform: Can Mark Zuckerberg and friends deliver? (+video)

Mark Zuckerberg and a cast of Silicon Valley players are entering the fray over immigration reform. But the new group, FWD.US, says it's also interested in promoting education reform and scientific research.

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“Although Silicon Valley's involvement is a distinct plus for immigration reform, its involvement could backfire, because its political strength rests more on the liberal side of the issue,” he says via e-mail, adding, “Zuckerberg's support is not a minus, but it does not carry the strength that it could, because he is a lightning rod politically.”

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The vast majority of Americans may not relate to Silicon Valley’s need for more skilled workers, says Dan Afrasiabi, author of the upcoming book “Restart Entrepreneurial Immigration.” But he notes that Silicon Valley can have an important impact by helping to move the focus of the national immigration debate from security issues to economic issues. “9/11 refocused the debate on security but Silicon Valley can help shift the focus back to the importance of keeping jobs here in the country,” Mr. Afrasiabi says.

Currently, the US government issues some 85,000 H-1B visas, which are reserved for highly skilled workers, each year. This year, when the application period opened on April 1, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service received more than 124,000 applications within five days and closed the process, finishing it off with a lottery to decide recipients.

“This is a horrific way to run an immigration system,” says Andrez Mejer, a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who was in Washington Wednesday for a day of action on the issue of immigration reform.

The country does not have enough skilled workers to fill industry’s needs, he says, and it sorely needs a more sensible approach to keeping America competitive. “Silicon Valley can play an important role in getting that message out,” he says, “because small individuals or companies cannot get that message out, but a company like Apple or Microsoft can be heard.”

Mike Beckley, CTO of Appian, a high-tech firm with 225 employees in Reston, Va., says he spends more than three fourths of his time recruiting, noting that more than half the qualified applicants he turns up are foreign nationals.

“There are just not enough applicants to fill the jobs we have,” he says, but the solutions begin with early education – an important prong in the FWD.US platform. “It has to start with grade school,” he says, noting that in Vietnam, for instance, “there are fifth graders who already know how to write computer code.”

The education and research sides of the Silicon Valley group may be even more important than the skilled worker visa issue, says Reaz Jafri, head of the immigration practice at the international law firm Withers Bergman.

Besides lobbying for more high-tech visas, he says via e-mail, it is important to ask, “what is Silicon Valley doing to encourage a STEM-driven education system where young Americans look more and more to science, technology, engineering and mathematics?”

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