Texas Ranger Sammy Sosa, New York Yankee Hideki Matsui and Baltimore Oriole Miguel Tejada have more in common than being a few of baseball's silver sluggers. All three crossed the U.S. border using a little-known visa reserved for foreigners with exceptional skills.
As the Senate returns to the immigration debate this week, the technology industry is using baseball's playbook to try to carve out a similar exemption for top geek talent.
"Sergey Brin, who went to Stanford and founded Google, is foreign-born, and people like him are more important to our economy than, with all due respect to Mr. (George) Steinbrenner, people like Hideki Matsui," said Oracle's chief lobbyist, Robert Hoffman. "I'm sure Hideki Matsui made a lot of money for the Yankees, but Google's a company that employs 12,000 people and has been a major driver of the U.S. innovation economy. ... Hideki produces runs. Google produces jobs. Case closed."
Tech industry officials, who consistently rank immigration reform as their top legislative priority, might be well-served by understanding how baseball and other professional sports won their exemptions. Major league ball players have been granted so-called P-1 visas for more than 30 years, said Lucy Calautti, the league's chief lobbyist. The minor leaguers had to apply for more pedestrian visas, which was no problem when the government routinely waived the caps. But with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks came enforcement of the limits and the choking of teams' ability to recruit foreign players.
So last year, baseball joined with the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association to press Congress to grant minor leaguers P-1 visa status. Calautti said Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), then the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Judiciary Committee, understood the problem. Specter represents the Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies, and Leahy's state is closely tied to the Boston Red Sox. With more than 1,000 minor league teams scattered throughout the nation, many other lawmakers also had a stake.
But even with America's pastime pushing for change, it wasn't a home run, Calautti said. Lobbyists worked until 3 a.m. on the session's last night to fend off House members' attempts to add additional groups to the bill. They succeeded, and the bill became law in December.
"My advice to the high-tech community is that they need coalitions and they need a lot of members of Congress that have a vested interest in bringing in foreign high-tech people to do the work," she said.
Basketball, hockey and baseball were helped by the relatively small number of minor league players, about 300, who could use the visa, Calautti said. The scale is much smaller than technology.
Technology's voracious appetite for skilled workers has employers worried. Microsoft alone has more than 3,000 jobs open that it cannot fill because of a lack of qualified people, said the company's chief lobbyist, Jack Krumholtz.
Tech lobbyists have cleared their benches this spring to push for exempting math and science grads with advanced degrees from the immigration caps. They've banded together with trade groups, educators and researchers to form Compete America to promote the message with media and lobbying campaigns, said Hoffman, the coalition's co-chair.
"We are in awe of the fact that Major League Baseball and major league hockey … have this extraordinary ability to recruit talent without any restraints from the immigration system," he said, adding that Yankees owner Steinbrenner may have more interest in using the exemptions to rebuild his team now that it hangs near the bottom of the standings.
Representatives from the American Electronics Association and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group also plan to be on Capitol Hill this week. Tech chief executives have been blitzing lawmakers with letters and pone calls, Hoffman said.
The techies are pushing for an amendment sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) that would exempt people with advanced degrees from U.S. colleges and universities from work visa and green card caps.
Those same graduates would also be exempted from the legislation's proposed point system, which determines eligibility by scoring candidates in categories such as work experience, English proficiency, education and family background. Tech companies worry such scoring won't provide enough candidates with the highly specialized skills they need, Hoffman said.
Lowell Sachs, a Sun Microsystems lobbyist, said creating the point system "is kind of like having a bureaucrat set you up on a blind date. Maybe it works out, but I sure wouldn't want to bet on the odds."
Tech company officials describe a viciously competitive environment where demand for math and science graduates far outstrips supply. And many of those graduates are foreign nationals who must compete for H-1B visas and green cards to remain in the country after graduation. Of all students who earned an advanced degree in electrical engineering in 2005, 55 percent of the master's students and 67 percent of the Ph.D.s were foreign-born, Hoffman said.
The industry complains that the current immigration system doesn't provide enough visas. For example, this year the government had 65,000 H-1B visas available for all businesses. On April 2, the first day applications were accepted, 120,000 were submitted. Because applications can only be submitted for college graduates, most of this year's crop missed out thanks to a May commencement, Hoffman said.
Microsoft and others are fighting to retain workers by expanding the number of available green cards. "We should be stapling green cards to the diplomas" of foreign-born graduates of U.S. colleges and universities, said Krumholtz, estimating that for every visa holder Microsoft hires, four more jobs could be created.
What's good for baseball should be good for tech, many argue.
"Our engineers may not get as many autograph requests as a player for the Nats or the O's, but they're still the top draft picks of the geek league," Sachs wrote in an e-mail to The Politico. "Congress should pony up on the high-skilled visas to make sure we keep them playing for our team, or we're going to find our innovation economy being sent back down to the minors."