AOL Inc. co-founder Steve Case—one of the tech world's leading immigration reform cheerleaders—says liberals will have to compromise on the sweeping Senate bill if it has a shot of passing the Republican-led House.
"We don’t want to win the battle in the Senate and then lose the war in the House," Case told Yahoo News.
Case, who served on President Barack Obama's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and leads the White House's Startup America Partnership initiative, said Democrats will need to compromise further on the bill in order for it to pass the Senate with 70 votes or more. "Seventy votes will really send a signal of bipartisanship," Case said. "I think that signal is important to the House because that, frankly, is where there’s going to be a heavier lift."
The bill will legalize most of the country's 11 million unauthorized immigrants. It will also significantly overhaul the nation's legal immigration system, orienting it slightly away from family-based immigration to give more visas to highly skilled foreign workers and green cards to promising science and math graduates of U.S. colleges.
Silicon Valley has poured millions into lobbying over the bill, winning it tech-friendly provisions such as raising the yearly cap on H-1B temporary high-skilled visas from 65,000 to as many as 180,000; providing visas for people who found start-up companies; and loosening restrictions on how extensively businesses must try to fill jobs with U.S. workers before they can recruit abroad.
Some of these provisions have raised the ire of immigrant advocacy groups and organized labor, which tend to be suspicious of too much employment-based immigration, fearing that businesses will favor foreign workers and push down wages. But so far, the liberal-leaning groups, tech companies and business have managed to stay allies on reform.
"There’s always some sensitivity when the unemployment is high and people are coming in, and there’s some concern that people might be taking jobs," Case said of the controversy over H-1B visas. He acknowledged that some companies abuse the H-1B system but said that overall, more high-skilled immigration is a boon for the U.S. economy.
In cable TV appearances and op-eds, Case—who resides in Virginia and stepped down as chair of AOL Time Warner in 2003—has argued that America is losing out on a global competition for talent because of its outdated immigration laws. Citing research by the National Foundation for American Policy, he pointed out that 23 of the 50 top venture-backed companies in the U.S. were founded by immigrants, and he bemoaned the restrictions the legal immigration system puts on the fast-growing tech industry.
To gain the support of 15 or more Republican senators, Democrats might have to make some concessions on border security and other issues, Case said. For example, he said an amendment from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to extend immigration benefits to married same-sex couples would quash its chances of passing the Senate with bipartisan support. Leahy withdrew the amendment in committee but announced he will reintroduce it.
"The president has said that’s an amendment that probably undermines the goal of trying to build bipartisan support," Case said. "Many people who believe it’s the right thing to do do not believe it’s the right thing to include in the legislation."
Case said he'd be "surprised" if it ended up in the final bill.
Obama signaled his support for the amendment, but the AP reported last month that the White House quietly asked Democrats not to include it in the bill so as not to jeopardize its passage. Obama has stayed behind the scenes for much of the immigration reform process, giving only a handful of speeches on the subject. He has also refrained from releasing a White House version of the bill, letting the bipartisan group in the Senate draft its own.
"The more vocal he is on this issue, [the harder it is] to build a broader coalition," Case said. "I think he’s played it pretty well."