As Congress takes up comprehensive immigration reform, people from different walks of life will have to come together for the effort to succeed. In California, no two places illustrate the bridges that must be built better than Silicon Valley and the Central Valley.

Yet it’s proving difficult for high tech and agriculture to span the divide. These neighbors have not even met with each other.

Exceptional Immigrants

Jetlore founders Monste Medina and Eldar Sadikov. (Jetlore)
Jetlore founders Montse Medina and Eldar Sadikov. (Courtesy of Jetlore)

Jetlore is a startup in Sunnyvale that uses algorithms to read the slang in Facebook and Twitter posts.

Founders Montse Medina and Eldar Sadikov are from Spain and Russia, respectively. They are both 28-year-old Stanford University graduates and award-winning authors in artificial intelligence. The office feels like a mini-United Nations, with about a dozen employees from countries that include Romania, Ukraine, Mexico and the United States.

Medina said that for years they’ve been “dealing with this immigration hell” and even had to incorporate the business early just to qualify for visas.

Despite their brainpower, Medina and Sadikov are here as temporary guests. They do not have green cards, which are granted to permanent residents. That’s a problem they share with millions of immigrants who are at the low end of the economic spectrum—the kind of people who do service-sector jobs or agricultural work.

But Sadikov rejects being compared with a grape picker.

“I think I made more impact,” Sadikov says. “I think I did more good things for this country. In a way, I deserve to be here.”

The Other Valley

Manuel Cunha, director of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, finds that exceptionalism insulting. He says Silicon Valley types might know complex math but don’t “know a thing about how to prune a grapevine.”

Cunha works with Central Valley farmers who grow grapes, oranges and cotton. He has campaigned for immigration reform since the Reagan years.

Cunha recalled a tense moment in 1996. Agriculture and high tech both wanted visas. High tech told Congress their workers were more valuable, and they won lawmakers’ support to move their bill forward.

Cunha said that point left a lingering impression that Silicon Valley does not care about the Central Valley.

“They only worry about them, and they don’t worry about the rest of the country,” he said.

Many immigration advocates describe this round of reform as distinct from prior ones because interest groups are forming alliances across class, ethnicity and geography. There are regular meetings among ministers, police, restaurants, unions and chambers of commerce.

“It’s really comprehensive,” Cunha said, echoing the name of the campaign for comprehensive immigration reform.

That does not mean, however, that Cunha is talking with technology leaders. Asked if he’s reaching out or visiting anyone in neighboring Silicon Valley, Cunha flipped the question: “Why haven’t they come to the San Joaquin Valley? Because they’re better than us!”

Technology Companies Form a Lobby

Intel Corp. Policy Director Peter Muller has a different take.

“We haven’t really coordinated message because it’s a different set of issues,” Muller said.

He said he has not met with farmers because he’s busy meeting with other tech companies.

Back in 2007, during the last round of immigration reform discussions, Microsoft and Intel’s then-CEO Andrew Grove were outspoken advocates for visas. But the industry as a whole did not engage in politics.

Now companies are petitioning Congress and organizing a virtual march on Washington, called the March for Innovation. Facebook is hiring additional lobbyists for the immigration reform campaign.

“Silicon Valley, tech companies, realize government is part of what they have to deal with, like it or not,” Muller said.

He recalled his own tense moment in 2012. Intel wanted additional visas for Indian and Chinese workers. Their bill won by a landslide in the House, only to get blocked in the Senate.

“There were some senators who felt it was not right to deal with that one small issue and thought that there were bigger issues in the immigration arena that needed to be dealt with,” Muller said.

If lawmakers want a big, comprehensive bill to address immigration, he said, it’s their responsibility to build the bridges.

Dan Siciliano, a Stanford University law professor and entrepreneur, criticized his peers in Silicon Valley for being myopic at times.

“There’s a lot of prejudicial bias built into the way people think about immigration,” Siciliano said. “The power players in Silicon Valley are not particularly concerned — maybe not concerned at all — about the so-called unskilled immigrants. As soon as you say ‘unskilled,’ people think poor, uneducated, underachieving.”

Emily Lam, an advocate with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, has prodded her members to think about endorsing reform proposals that include farmworker visas and legalization.

“Unless you have some really big objection to the rest of the bill,” Lam tells them, “your best chance is to advocate for comprehensive—even if your instinct is indignation.”

Intel, Google, Facebook and others worked on a shared platform for the high-tech community—the Immigration Innovation Act. Muller said Intel’s support for a comprehensive bill depends on congressional support for the technology industry.

“We’re focused on the Immigration Innovation Act. And if the pieces … important to us are included in a broader bill that has other things in it, that’s something we’ll be supportive of,” Muller said.

Using the Tech Lobby

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) is a lead negotiator for the House on a bipartisan bill.

Workers harvest tomatoes southeast of Fresno. (Craig Miller/KQED)
Workers harvest tomatoes southeast of Fresno. (Craig Miller/KQED)

Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, sits on the House Judiciary Committee with Lofgren.

Gutierrez has a message for Lofgren’s constituents in Silicon Valley. “I have told them time and time again, until you take the least among you, and she or he gets an opportunity, it’s going to be broken for everyone.”

Gutierrez recently came to the Bay Area to push comprehensive reform. He met with farmworkers but not with tech companies. He said it was a short trip.

Gutierrez is counting on the voting power of Latinos to get the tech lobby in line.

“Particularly from the Latino community, people didn’t go and vote on Nov. 6 to give one person a leg up over another,” he said.

Arguably, it’s the Latino vote that put immigration reform on the table right after the election. And arguably, as Gutierrez notes, it’s the tech companies–and the money and jobs they’re promising–that will win over reluctant lawmakers.

“There will not be a problem with the Congress on the Republican and Democratic side providing tens of thousands of visas for the high-tech industry,” Gutierrez said.

He has been criticized for blocking visas for high-skilled workers in order to use the tech lobby as a pawn in the chess game for reform. Gutierrez acknowledges it but shrugs off the criticism.

“We’re going to do this for everyone,” he said.

To do this for everyone, Silicon Valley and the Central Valley will have to pool their electoral and economic power. That might take a conversation.

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Author

Aarti Shahani

Aarti Shahani is a reporter at KQED, focusing on business and technology. She came to San Francisco as a Kroc Fellow with NPR. She was part of the ProPublica team awarded an Investigative Reporters & Editors Award for Post Mortem – a series examining the unregulated coroner and medical examiner industry. Shahani got her Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, supported by the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship and a Public Service Fellowship. She studied globalization as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. She was raised in Flushing, Queens – in the nation’s most diverse zip code.

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